Directed by Alexander Payne
Screenplay by Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon
George Clooney as Matt King
Shailene Woodley as Alexandra King
Amara Miller as Scottie King
Matthew Lillard as Brian Speer
Nick Krause as Sid
How long is The Descendants? 115 minutes.
What is The Descendants rated? R for language including some sexual references.
Alexander Payne’s latest brings us
the best and worst of grief and humiliation.
On opening night of the 2011 Virginia Film Festival, the new George Clooney/Alexander Payne vehicle The Descendants is sold out. A palpable buzz fills the theater, as much for the beginning of the festival as for the evening’s feature. I’ll admit, I knew little about the movie prior to the screening – but Payne’s name is enough to get me in a theater seat. With 1999’s Election, Payne handed us an older, grayer, and totally deplorable Matthew Broderick, ruining the teenage dreams of Ferris Bueller fans (and he showed us that romcom queen Reese Witherspoon has serious range). In 2004, Sideways put Paul Giamatti and a naked Thomas Haden Church on the pop culture map as pathetic middle-aged wine connoisseurs. With The Descendants, Payne turns his brutal but loving hand to Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel about a cuckolded widower (played by Clooney, who is far more believable as a grieving father than as a cuckold) and his dysfunctional quest to find the man with whom his comatose wife was stepping out.
The story could take place anywhere; it bears a passing resemblance to one arc in John Irving’s New England-set The World According to Garp. Fortunately for the audience, though, Payne’s newest flick takes place in that paradise of sparkling sand and cerulean sea, Hawaii. Matt King (Clooney) is a member of one of Oahu’s wealthiest dynasties. As his family struggles to make an enormous, far-reaching real estate decision, Matt’s wife falls into a coma as the result of a speedboat accident. Matt, who until the accident was the “backup parent, the understudy,” finds himself saddled with two foulmouthed daughters. Seventeen-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) has a bit of a drinking problem, and apparently has kicked her drug habit following her expulsion from the last fancy private school she tried. Ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) has a cruel streak and an entirely understandable obsession with death and sex. When Alexandra stops acting out long enough to tell Matt his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) was cheating on him, Elizabeth’s impending death takes on a decidedly more confusing hue. In one of the worst parenting decisions committed to film, Matt takes his dysfunctional family, which now includes Alex’s twerp surfer friend Sid (Nick Krause), to Kauai to hunt down the man with whom Elizabeth was sleeping.
Payne is best at depicting the niggling, cringe-worthy flaws of your average Joe. His movies are smart depictions of normal people thrust into bizarre situations – but softly strange, not so farfetched as to be impossible. Like The Squid and the Whale’s Noah Baumbach, Payne chooses topics that are grotesque, darkly comic. You laugh because you can’t figure out what else to do with yourself. The Descendants intersperses chuckles with poignant portrayals of grief. People respond in viscerally nasty ways to death – they lash out at one another, they place blame, they stubbornly deny that anything at all is wrong. In fact, all five Kübler-Ross stages of grief are present in Payne’s movie. One could argue people are at their worst after the death of a loved one – and in Payne’s deft hands even people at their worst are a morbid pleasure to watch.
The Kings finally locate Elizabeth’s lover Brian Speer. Speer turns out to be none other than Matthew Lillard (I only bring this up because, well, who in her right mind would choose Matthew Lillard over George Clooney?). Even worse, he’s a real estate agent heavily invested in Matt’s family’s land. In a final dagger straight to Matt’s heart, Speer has a family: pretty wife Julie (Judy Greer) and two young children. After a brief and intensely awkward confrontation, Matt can finally return to the grieving process, and as always in road movies (which this is, despite its oceanic setting), the characters grow closer together.
The majority of Americans, of course, live in the lower 48, and to us Hawaii is as exotic as a foreign country. In the opening monologue, Matt asks, “Do you think just because we live here, our heartaches are less painful?” Juxtaposed with shots of Hawaii’s overpopulated cities and homeless – the things that don’t come to mind when we think of that idyllic state – the question is startling. Likewise, it’s jarring to see Hawaii’s most influential businesspeople dressed in khaki shorts and (obviously) Hawaiian shirts: “Don’t be fooled,” Matt warns us. “The most powerful people often resemble bums and stuntmen.” Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael walk a fine line; although Hawaii is undeniably gorgeous, for the most part the beauteous landscape takes a backseat to the microdrama on the surface of the islands.
Clooney, who’s falling into common typecasting for older actors, is perhaps too suave for the role. Nonetheless he’s believable as a man stumbling into parenthood, meandering through grief, and tripping over pointless jealousy. Lillard and Greer, both comedic actors usually relegated to the role of funny sidekick, remain firmly on planet earth in The Descendants. Woodley, Miller, and Krause form a team of quirky, eventually likeable young things to bolster Clooney through his journey. Robert Forster puts in great screen time as Elizabeth’s bitter, grief-stricken father, spewing vitriol and placing blame. Though Payne is undoubtedly a great filmmaker and Clooney will draw audiences thanks to that charm, that coif, and that beautifully graying stubble, the movie isn’t brilliant. It’s a bit tonally uneven, a bit heavy on the profanity. It isn’t destined to go down in history with Election. But those like me, who are drawn to family-oriented melodramas infused with a bit of comedy, will find a perfectly likeable movie with a number of genuinely hilarious scenes. It’s smart, sad, and painful all at once, but the execution isn’t snappy enough to draw Oscar gossip. It’s a perfectly passable dramedy, but it isn’t among the best.