in Review

The Descendants

I can’t really think of many directors who could possibly get me more excited for one of their releases than Alexander Payne.  Maybe it’s a bit strange to get excited for a guy who’s made a career for himself by directing low-key, character-driven drama/comedies, but the guy’s style really works for me.  Then on top of that, it’s been seven years since he released his last film Sideways, a gap in which Terrence Malick has released not one, but two films.  So after such a long absence, it’s a small wonder seeing how his latest film The Descendants provides us with another small, human story, starring the always dependable George Clooney.

Clooney stars as Matt King, a Hawaiian land baron who’s wife has been in a coma caused by a boating accident.  Through some fairly expository voice-over that takes up the early moments of the film, we learn that Matt is unqualified to take care of his daughters without his wife around.  Matt then is given the news that his wife won’t be waking out of her coma, and Matt decides to go around the islands of Hawaii making peace with his wife’s family members by telling them of her unpleasant fate.  Matt gets another blow to his fragile state of mind when his daughter Alex reveals that his wife had been cheating with him.  Then from there, Matt sets out with his daughters to make peace with his wife’s inevitable passing, while also hoping to track down the man that his wife cheated on him with.

Oddly enough, the script was adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel by Payne along with Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, two guys that seem to show up quite often as bit players in comedy films or TV series.  I guess this is strange to me not only because these guys aren’t seasoned screenwriters, but also because the film often shies away from comedy and instead is more interested in the emotions that family members are faced with when confronted with death.  Yet despite this more somber tone, Payne is still willing to take on this subject matter with a lighter touch, often mixing in a few laughs to go along with all the grief and heartbreak that the film encompasses.

I remember seeing Alexander Payne in a recent interview saying that he was attracted most to The Descendants because he had never seen Hawaii portrayed in a film before.  At first I thought this couldn’t be true, but the more I thought of it, I agreed that Hawaii hadn’t really ever been the setting for a film that captured the islands in any sort of revelatory manner.  The Descendants sees Payne breezily capturing Hawaii with a surehanded amount of authenticity, giving us a Hawaii that’s less of a tropical paradise, and more of just another place where people live and die and complicate each other’s lives.

As for the performances, Clooney is really what guides the film, and though he doesn’t really show us any disarming new shades of his persona as an actor, there’s still a surprising amount of vulnarability that he displays.  The rest of the cast seems to be full of nothing but surprises, as performers like Judy Greer and Matthew Lillard get the chance to take on the kind of emotional material that you probably wouldn’t expect from them, while Shaillene Woodley is another stand out as Clooney’s troubled daughter.

I guess I was probably expecting a more comedically satisfying film from the man who brought us Election and Sideways, but honestly I can’t really complain when The Descendants covers such a wide range of emotions in such a mature and honest manner.  I’m just hoping I won’t have to wait another seven years to hear from a writer/director whose brand of modestly-budgetted indie dramadies seem to be becoming rarer and rarer these days.

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