Review: The Descendants

A father dealing with conflicted daughters. A mother on the brink of life and death. Learning to forgive and accepting the past. In the hands of the Hallmark Channel, these situations and themes are the epitome of cliche. When seen through the eyes of Alexander Payne, these cliches are transcended within the context of a well told story, with likable, yet flawed characters. This is the case of The Descendants, a story which often threatens to go the quick and easy route on the emotional scale, yet never manipulates those emotions without completely earning them first. Though a few strokes of the narrative are predictable, Payne succeeds completely in playing against audience expectations to deliver a rich and satisfying story, filled with equal parts lumps in the throat and laughs in the belly.

The Descendants takes place in Hawaii, and from the outset, Payne is intent on painting a very different picture of the tropical state than most postcards suggest. The film’s protagonist, Matt King, tells us through voiceover that behind the beaches and sunsets, the people of the state suffer no less than anyone on the mainland. That suffering in King’s case is due to the fact that his wife is lying in a coma in the hospital due to a boating accident, and the outlook is dour. Having relied on his wife to do most of the heavy lifting in parenting, Matt is unprepared to take on the responsibility of truly connecting with his two daughters, Alex and Scottie. Coupled with this emotional pressure, Matt also happens to be a descendant of Hawaiian royalty, and is therefore under pressure to sell a major piece of real estate for the sake of tourism. Now, with these plot elements alone, most made for TV movies would take every opportunity for emotional manipulation and the result would feel completely contrived and unearned. However, a key ingredient to the story truly changes the narrative direction of the film, in which Matt learns that up to her accident, his wife had been cheating on him. Again, potential fodder for cliche storytelling, but in this case, Payne takes the opportunity to reveal the flaws in both Matt and his wife, instead of allowing the audience to pity both.

As Matt King, George Clooney does perhaps the best work of his career thus far. Clooney has certainly given great performances in the past, from serious, complex fare such as Michael Clayton and The American to lighthearted romps including Fantastic Mr. Fox and Burn After Reading. With The Descendants, he is given the rare opportunity to work both ends of the dramatic spectrum. He gives the flawed King a genuine pathos, hitting every dramatic beat perfectly without getting sappy, as well as finding hidden funny moments without venturing too far out into slapstick. Balancing the two can be a difficult act for any actor, but Clooney effortlessly conveys the maelstrom King is fighting on the inside. With Shailene Woodley as Alex, one discovers a fresh onscreen talent who is weathering the storms upon the end of adolescence, and the scene in which she learns of her mother’s eventual fate is as subtly moving as anything on screen this year. The rest of the ensemble is just as strong as these two performances, which is very much due to Payne’s patient direction coupled with such a well written screenplay.

Alexander Payne’s cinema is much less stylized and self conscious than most American auteurs, but that does not mean it is any less effective. Where one might look at the cinema of Scorsese or Fincher and see the immediate visual influences of Samuel Fuller or Alan J. Pakula, Payne’s work is not as easy to categorize. His visual aesthetic is all his own, something of a European sensibility despite the inherent Americanness of his stories. In the case of Payne, the story always comes first, and everything surrounding it (performances, art direction, score, photography, editing, sound design) is mean to be in service of that story. Perhaps he most resembles Billy Wilder, whose best films are known for their great stories. Additionally, Wilder was able to effortlessly navigate the waters of comedy and drama while never condescending to the audience, a talent Payne has exceedingly displayed in the past with Sideways and About Schmidt. With The Descendants, Payne succeeds again in telling another compelling story of the human experience, through all of its flaws, compromises, laughs, and tears.

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~ by romancinema on December 28, 2011.

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