Saturday, December 3, 2011

Upcoming Release Review: The Descendants (Alexander Payne, 2011)

The Descendants opens in Australian cinemas January 12, 2012, distributed by 20th Century Fox.

Alexander Payne is back for his fifth feature. It’s been seven years after he co-wrote and directed his masterpiece, Sideways (which, in my opinion, should have won Best Picture in 2004) but he has made his anticipated return with The Descendants, the well-received comedy/drama starring George Clooney in the lead role.

Clooney is excellent as Matt King, a wealthy attorney who has descended from Hawaiian royalty and is the sole trustee of 25,000 acres of untouched land on the Island of Kaua'i, passed down from his ancestors. Admirably Matt has resisted using his immense inherited wealth and worked hard all of his life to support his family's quality of living. With the trust set to expire in seven years, Matt's greedy relatives have convinced him to finally sell the land to a developer (a decision also tracked by the Hawaiian media), and are awaiting his decision. As this is in the works, several other complications emerge in Matt's life, which influence him. He discovers that his wife, Elizabeth, who was recently sent into a coma following a boating accident, is unlikely to ever recover and he has to bring the news to his two daughters, 10 year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17 year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley), and Elizabeth's family and close friends.

In addition, he also has to accept the new challenge of being the sole parent (and formerly the 'back-up parent') to his emotionally distant daughters. Things get more complicated when Alex reveals to him that before the accident his wife had been having an affair and had planned to leave him, and even further so when the other man, a local real-estate agent, is linked with the new development planned for Matt's inherited land. So what is Matt to do? Will confronting the man solve any of his problems? He really just wants to see who his wife was willing to leave him for, which is fair enough. While he and his daughters cope with the decision of letting their mother go, they take a trip to Kaua'i to take a look at the land for what could be the last time and on the chance that they run into the guy, bring the sad news to him too.

The Descendants was a film I was convinced would be more rewarding on repeat viewings and one that I imagined I would become more appreciative over time. Having now seen the film twice, I can declare that this is precisely the case. It does take some time to process, and mull over – because it is a little disconcerting how plausible and human the characters feel, how impressively contained Payne's direction is, focusing on subtleties and fleeting moments, and how devastatingly broken some of the relationships are. The often heartbreaking revelations, though some of them are exposed in the trailer, remain full of surprises and have no less emotional impact.

Still, despite being a very fine film, I couldn't shake initial feelings of disappointment about the ending. This was probably the only criticism I had with the film - it didn't completely blow me away, but I guess a rousing finale would have differed from the tone set up throughout the film. The second viewing was even more enjoyable, and I appreciated Clooney's fantastic performance all the more. It’s a touching film that effortlessly balances a number of sensitive individual and family traumas with nuanced ease, building moments that are simultaneously funny (and the film is frequently amusing) and sad. I couldn't help but feel that the voice-over was a little overdone early, and the length is padded out with shots of Hawaiian landscape. I guess one of the film's ties is of Matt's family to the land - and it is a unique location for the film - so I guess Payne was trying to make the most of it.

Payne is also especially good at drawing unique performances from his cast, and the film’s charms rest on the writing, which manages to tease out a series of complex, off-kilter, emotionally rich and sharply humorous situations, and the acting. In support of the Oscar-bound Clooney, who doesn’t overplay his character and keeps himself effortlessly restrained, there is some really stellar work. As Matt’s daughters, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller are excellent. They act like regular kids at difficult ages who have grown up on an island, and lived a life of privilege (but not spoilt). Scottie doesn’t understand the seriousness of her mother’s injury, believing that she will improve, while Alex had developed a strained relationship with her mother and is confused by her feelings – overwhelmed by sadness, but brimming with bitterness and anger. Neither is sure how to help their father or willing to let him start controlling their lives. But the way that Alex rises to the challenge and becomes her father’s sidekick, helping him to inform Elizabeth’s relatives about her unfortunate situation, and egging him on in his attempts to find Brian, is surprising. Woodley is evidently talented, and delivers an amazing performance here. While Clooney holds the fort early, as soon as she enters the film, it hits a whole new level. In a just world, she would find herself with her own Oscar nomination.

Here's the thing about Payne. Each of his multi-layered characters has the potential to surprise you, and they do so on many occasions. It was the same in Sideways. A great example is Nick Krause’s Sid. Asked along on the journey by Alex, he seems like a bit of a dopey dropkick whose presence is purely for comic relief – but he shares a scene with Clooney that reveals so much more, and suddenly you understand him and even begin to respect him. Beau Bridges as Matt’s cousin Hugh and Robert Forster as Matt’s tough-minded and unforgiving father-in-law, have a couple of excellent scenes, while Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer (as Brian and Julie Speer) also infuse their characters with genuine personalities. Lillard, especially, turns in impressive work as the pitiful real estate agent who buckles with shame when confronted by Matt.

It is the intricacies of these performances, the ease that Payne brings his characters into and out of the story, the subtle humour and affecting drama present within these interrelations, the film’s beautiful scenery and breezy climate and the score from a collaboration of Hawaiian musicians, which keeps the film lingering in your mind. The Descendants, despite dealing with familiar themes, has a fresh originality that gives it an edge over most of the dramas this year. Whether it will be enough to gather awards recognition, I’m not sure. It has been an Oscar frontrunner for a while, and while it personally doesn't quite match Sideways for me, it is still another very rewarding effort from Payne, and more career-best work from Clooney. I know we all said that about Up in the Air, but this really could be Clooney's year.

My Rating: ★★★★1/2 (A-)


  1. Awesome, I can't wait to see this movie! I'm especially excited to see how good Shailene Woodley is in here. The Secret Life of the American Teenager is usually on Saturday afternoons before I go to work so I just happen to watch it. I'm not overly impressed by her work in that show (mind you, the show is quite bad), but she does have some talent. As I said, I can't wait!

  2. The Descendants has been getting a lot of buzz lately and, although I am starting to get tired of Clooney, I will watch this for Woodley, everyone is raving about her! I still don't know when it's premiering here, but I will go see it! Thanks Andy!

  3. Clooney and everybody else included is great but it’s really Payne who shines as the writer bringing out some funny humor but not without forgetting about the real rich moments of human drama. Good review Andy, as usual. A good film but not as great as I was expecting.

  4. Great review, am looking forward to the return of Payne.

  5. @ Stevee - Shailene Woodley is very good. Depending on whether The Descendants gets a bunch of noms - Pic, Director, Screenplay and Actor, then she might be considered too.

    @ Aziza - I'm certainly not getting tired of Clooney. I thought he was perfect for his role in IDES, and he's great again here. But, it's worth a look because Alexander Payne and the other screenwriters have crafted a touching human drama -that is emotionally involving and funny.

    @ Dan - I agree. Not as great as I was expecting, but it should be a lock for a screenplay nom at least.

    @ John - Thanks John. I loved Sideways (and Election was pretty good too) so this was very anticipated!

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