Directed by Alexander Payne
Released in 2011
If movies provide the ultimate escape, the success of writer-director Alexander Payne raises some questions. His films depict the frustrations of life through a witty, but unapologetically honest lens. Election admitted that the selfish prevail over the selfless. The two men in Sideways sipped fine, aged wine while their own aging lives descended to mediocrity. Payne’s latest film, The Descendants, ends on a note of optimism, but the hilly way there is littered with uncomfortable situations and harsh truths that carry loss, anger and ignorance. We have all lived in one of these scenes, whether as victim, aggressor or bystander. Perhaps the deserved distinction of this film and all of Payne’s works lies in how he captures moments we all know and feel, and without adorning the script with fake eloquence or resorting to caricature, sympathizes with both sides and reconciles them.
George Clooney has worked towards the role of Matt King in The Descendants for his entire career, but his arrival no less defies the suave bachelor archetype synonymous with his name. Clooney is a dad, and one with little confidence on how to raise his children or himself. The roles he played beforehand certainly offered no fathering tips. Passive and blind to his family’s needs, Matt must adapt his detached mentality to deal with a twofold crisis in his family. For one, a large parcel of virgin land on the Hawaii island of Kaua’i faces settlement. Calls of support from family real estate brokers and outcry from island natives clash. The product of random acts of dissemination, Matt has the final say if the land of his ancestors, dating back to Hawaiian royalty, will sell for a large sum. His comatose wife, thrown from a motorboat during a race, presents more pressing issues. Not only does the injury throw his wife’s fate into question and himself into the parenting spotlight, but other sources leak to him that she was not faithful.
The curious question as to how any woman would cheat on George Clooney withstanding, Alexander Payne uncovers the rawest of feeling in realistic situations, just like us. In a breakout performance that may open doors for Oscar, Shailene Woodley, as daughter Alex, sobs in a pool, and the camera follows her under water as she unleashes a primal scream. Alex’s boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) tags along as the family visits Matt’s in-laws to discuss serious matters, and he laughs in disbelief at the painful dementia of the grandmother. You just want to punch the kid; Robert Forster, playing the dad, kindly provides the knockout.
Heavy the film hits, it still aims for comedy. Like his dramatic scenes, Payne mines for laughs in the most banal of circumstances. Payne finds the way people run funny, as seen when Paul Giamatti shuffles down a hill in Sideways and here when Matt awkwardly sprints through a neighborhood. Matt’s youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller), the last remnant of (rapidly fading) innocence in the family, interjects with out-of-place comebacks and dirty words beyond her comprehension. Scottie turns depressed from her family’s troubles, and instead of offering words of comfort, her teachers and peers’ parents scold Matt for not containing his daughter’s pain. They say she scares their own children. When ignorance passes as wisdom, sometimes laughing at the fool is the only option. Ask Michael Scott from The Office.
These quirks and flaws of character either change or prove endearing as a method to cope. Sid’s initial idiocy may just be his bewildered tact after his own substantial loss. Alex’s verbal fistfights with her whole family slacken as she directs her rhetoric to those who have wronged her loved ones. And Matt, all bottled-up and ready to explode, lets loose at last on just about everyone, including his unconscious wife. He feels a catharsis in expressing how he actually feels, but evolves to control this outlet by leading an open life with the important people he has left. He takes ownership of what he never had, similar to his dilemma regarding the land entrusted upon him, the land of the family he appreciates but does not know.
If there is any place for some soul-searching, Hawaii is it. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael keeps the camera at eye level, capturing beautiful scenery with beautiful shots that immerse but do not canonize. These characters have lived here all their life, and love it they do, it is not a vacation vista but home, imperfect as any. Urban strips of Honolulu, while a far cry from South Central, are not tour brochure-material, grounding the land of paradise with locations that could be anywhere. In one of the many, nonintrusive voiceovers, Matt asks the rest of the world if they think “our cancer is any less fatal?” Pain knows no boundaries, in gorgeous places and to gorgeous people.
This film lacks a certain drive in the beginning, and takes a few plot points to start to congeal into the film I admire. It is nothing I can exactly place my finger on, but the dialogue picks up its wit and the actors truly explore their roles once they are given space to breathe. The slow setup puts the pieces in place, and only then can the artists on and off-screen form the melancholic portrait. It’s curious how this film escalates in form and precision alongside the characters as they mature from imperfect souls to as close to perfect as they have ever been. Both the film and the characters, one in the same, hit their peak right before the credits roll, and you wonder if — and really, really hope — they will continue to improve, even after we have stopped watching.
4 Stars out of 5