Film review by: Witney Seibold
Alexander Payne’s strengths lie in deeply flawed people coming to the slow realization of their own flaws, all through a tragic or dramatic event. Yet he often delivers these tragic flaws through the lightened lens of carefully subdued comedy. We may be watching horrible events in peoples’ lives, but they always feel bright and chipper and oddly upbeat. This can work very well (as in “About Schmidt”) or fairly well (as in “Sideways”), but Payne’s work continues to stretch just how wrenching a comedy can be. He seems to want to outdo Woody Allen in his skill of affected and yet emotionally disarming tragicomedies. With “The Descendants,” Payne has continued to hone his storytelling acumen, and comes with a story that is his bitterest to date, his most atmospheric, and quite possibly his best. Indeed, “The Descendants” is one of the best films of the year.
“The Descendants” is essentially a film about the philosophical strength of good humor. A man, over the course of less than a week, must re-unite with his recovering addict teenage daughter, cope with the indefinite coma of his recently injured wife, earn the trust and respect of his younger daughter, brave the familial pressure of his land-happy extended family (he owns a stretch of Hawai’ian land worth billions), and somehow make sense of the recently broken news that his comatose wife was cheating on him and fully intended to leave him. What can a man do, but face all these things with as much good humor as he can muster? Matt (George Clooney), however, is constantly on the edge of fraying. He and his two daughters Alex and Scottie (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) seem to lean on one another like a tripod. Each two legs are unexpectedly dependent on one another.
Alex is the one who breaks the bad news to her dad about mom’s infidelity, and she, subsequently, comes in support of Matt’s need to seek down the man she was seeing (Matthew Lillard). The family turns what could have been a petty act of attrition into a kind of twisted family adventure, mostly for vindication, but partly to move out from under the cloud of the ailing mother. It’s amazing how Payne made this film look and feel a lot like a sitcom in its setup, and ultimately made a penetrating family drama about the hurt family members can do to one another, and how the healing can be just as accidental. I’m sorry if I’m making this sound like a TV movie of the week, but it’s more certainly the genuine article.
Some people have attacked this film as being another midlife crisis film about the incredibly wealthy. I always thought angsty dramas about wealthy people are meant to prove that wealth doesn’t solve angst. Yes, Matt is sitting on billions of dollars worth of Hawai-ian land. He’s also concerned with his birthright. That land will ultimately serve as his last connection to the world. His decision to sell it or to hang onto it is more than just high powered businessmen deciding how to spend their money. But enough of my defensive tone.
Clooney gives one of his better performances as Matt. Matt is kind of a dopey dad, dressed in the usual Hawai’iam shirt and flipflops, and looking every bit a dip. He is clearly unprepared for the horrors in front of him, and often declares it aloud. We do get the sense of him floundering, and how his desperation easily trades places with an unexpected inner peace.
Keep an eye on Nick Krause. He plays Alex’s dizty blonde would-be boyfriend, and comes across like a clueless version of Keanu Reeves. He is hilarious, and will be a big star someday.
The final scene in the film is a quietly hopeful note. I don’t want to reveal what happens, except to say that it is a depiction of a small, quiet, warm moment at home, proving that incidental moments can be the strongest of all. “The Descendants” is a very, very good film.