Monday, December 26, 2011

The Descendants Movie Review

As a writer and director, Alexander Payne is out to show that Hollywood studios can produce small character-driven dramas that are also successful. As a screenwriter he’s one of the great contemporary satirists, having given the great social commentary pieces Citizen Ruth and Election followed up by the equally impressive, though less satirical, more dramatic About Schmidt and Sideways. He comes back to us now after a lengthy break from feature film directing with The Descendants.


Payne’s specialty as a writer is building a story around characters who are usually as normal as any workaday American. There is very little, if anything, extraordinary happening in their lives except perhaps to themselves. Often his characters have simply arrived a crossroads and watching how they arrive at their choices and the resultant outcomes can have an effect on us. As a director one of his greatest skills is his ability to make the settings feel lived in. The cars are not perfect. They are sometimes dirty. Houses and bedrooms look, well, the way my house might look if I didn’t expect a visitor. Ever notice how most Hollywood movies have well-polished settings and production design? Not so in an Alexander Payne film. He wants us to see ourselves in his characters.

In The Descendants, Payne ventures away from his comfort zone of Nebraska and away from the continental United States to the paradise of Hawaii. Ah, Hawaii! That land of vacations, surfing, honeymoons, luaus, pig roasts, beautiful landscapes, active volcanoes and endless wonder and adventure. That’s what most of us continentals probably think of when we think of that string of islands (the family-as-archipelago metaphor is pushed a little hard) in the middle of the wide Pacific. As it turns out, Hawaii is full of real people living real lives with real problems. They have families. They have jobs and careers. Their kids go to school. They pay bills and taxes and all the rest. And with all that comes a life that is not all whimsical and perfect. Matt King (George Clooney) tells us as much in an opening narration providing a brief introduction to his life, the entirety of which has been lived on the island of Oahu.

Matt’s life has been running on auto-pilot for a while. He’s the self-described back-up parent to his two daughters, Scottie (newcomer Amara Miller) and Alex (Shailene Woodley). He has admittedly not given enough attention to his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), who is now tragically lying in a coma after a boating accident. Like Warren Schmidt in Payne’s earlier film, Matt’s life is thrown into sudden upheaval by the unexpected loss of his wife. Matt is the sole trustee to a large swath of untouched land on the island of Kaua’i. He and his numerous cousins fell into this trust by accident of birth, a stroke of luck treated by most of them with caprice as they’ve blown all their trust money so that they are now more than eager for Matt to sign the land over to the highest development bid offer they can. Matt, in the style of Warren Buffett, has lived a modest life relying solely on the income from his law practice and intends to leave his children “enough money for them to do anything, but not so much that they can do nothing.”

If you’ve seen the commercials for the film, you know that Matt learns his wife was having an affair with another man. Left unable to confront her or deal in any real way with the marital discord, he seeks out her lover, a man named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) he learns from a couple of family friends. Speer’s connection to Matt’s life turns out to hinge on more than an inappropriate relationship with Elizabeth.

The Descendants turns out to be part road movie as Matt takes his daughters and, rather inexplicably, a friend of Alex’s on a trip first to inform family members that Elizabeth’s living will stipulates the removal of life support and later to Kaua’i to look at the land one last time. Alex’s friend is Sid (Nick Krause) half-wit whose sole purpose seems to be to provide the least interesting and most inappropriate comments at the most inopportune moments. My hat is off to you if you can find his purpose in Payne’s screenplay, co-written by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Payne is a good writer and otherwise strikes me as a filmmaker who values intelligence and wisdom derived from experience and intellect. Unfortunately Sid’s wisdom stems from a school of anti-intellectualism that suggests even the dullest of souls have something meaningful to contribute to the conversation even if every word out of their mouths is garbage. This is a character who is cold-cocked by Elizabeth’s father (Robert Forster) for snickering at his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife. This is not the typical Alexander Payne brand of ironic humor. It is simply in poor taste, poorly executed and without merit.

There’s something interesting about Clooney playing a father. If memory serves, I believe this his first role as a family man. Though he’s meant to be a detached father with one daughter off at boarding school and the other at an age where she’s beginning to pick up difficult and inappropriate habits, he wears the part well. As for the jilted husband, he doesn’t overplay it. He has some excellent moments of private anger toward his comatose wife and then toward her lover, but mostly he’s just George Clooney, the bumbling Cary Grant-like Hollywood star who occasionally graces an art-house movie with his professional presence. Shailene Woodley is the actor to watch for. As the older daughter, she perfectly hits the cusp between childhood and adulthood that a seventeen-year old sits on. She reveals just enough of Alex’s animosity toward her parents for their faults, but also her need for guidance and approval from her father.

I like the location shooting that makes the suburban neighborhoods of Hawaii look like they could be Anytown, USA. If Payne intended to blow the lid off the notion that Hawaii is an exotic paradise, he’s succeeded in that. The houses, yards, streets and signs could be my town on Long Island, they could be New England or some other random place in the country. Although Matt lives in a generic-looking American suburb, he and his cousins are the owners of a substantial piece of honest-to-goodness paradise. Though everything else in his life is thoroughly ordinary, it is the extraordinary that it turns out is worth holding onto. I just think Payne could have provided a less ordinary film to service that end.

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