Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Alexander Payne
Stars: George Clooney, Matthew Lilliard, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Robert Forster, Neal Krause, Beau Bridges.
The Descendants is the new film from Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt, etc), and it is a subtle, understated and painfully raw character-driven comedy/drama that deals with themes of mortality and family. Payne is an insightful and intelligent filmmaker whose previous films have explored the human condition, and dealt with men adrift, looking for their bearings and hoping to make a connection that will help them overcome their sense of doubt and disappointment.
The Descendants is adapted from the acclaimed 2007 novel by Hawaiian author Kaui Hart Hemmings, and the intelligent, witty script from Payne and co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash offers lots of insights into its flawed characters. Payne takes his time to establish his characters, enabling the audience to empathise with them and their situation. His measured approach, subtle restraint, delicate balance between tragedy and humour, and his air of understatement heighten the emotional impact of his films. The Descendants is Payne’s fifth film, and reflects a more mature, perceptive and compassionate approach. This is the kind of film that sneaks up on you and hits you with its solid emotional truths.
There are very few laugh out loud moments here, although the film is peppered with some biting one-liners. The film draws much of its bleak humour from the uncomfortable situations its characters find themselves in and the messy details of ordinary lives falling apart. And Hawaii seems like the perfect setting for this film about a dysfunctional family dealing with turbulence in their lives. As one character observes: “A family feels exactly like an archipelago, separate but part of a whole, and always drifting slowly apart.”
Matt King (George Clooney) is a workaholic and successful property lawyer who lives in Hawaii, which many people regard as a Paradise on earth. But that doesn’t mean that his family is no less dysfunctional, their lives are any less complicated or their problems any less real. “Paradise can go f**k itself,” he observes.
Matt is descended from Hawaiian royalty, and is entrusted with responsibility for 25,000 acres of unspoilt land that has been in the family for hundreds of years. With the approval of his greedy extended family Matt is on the verge of selling the pristine beachfront property to developers. But the lucrative deal becomes complicated by family problems.
His wife Elizabeth lies in an irreversible coma following a power boat accident, and Matt is suddenly left to care for his two daughters, who have little time or respect for him. Scottie (newcomer Amara Miller) is a precocious, angry and foul-mouthed ten-year-old having difficulty facing the imminent loss of her mother. Struggling to cope with the troubled girl, Matt brings his rebellious 17-year-old daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, from The Secret Life Of The American Teenager, etc) home from the rehab centre where she is struggling to overcome her addiction to drugs and older men. Throughout the course of the film, the distant, clueless father must somehow become a parent and pull his dysfunctional family closer together.
However, Matt is shocked when Alexandra informs him that Elizabeth had been cheating on him and was thinking of asking for a divorce. He takes his daughters on a trip to the island of Kauai to confront the smarmy young real estate broker (Matthew Lilliard), who was having an affair with her. Payne certainly knows how to milk an offbeat road trip for humour and pathos. As he has done in previous films Payne seems able to elicit natural and honest performances from his ensemble cast.
The always reliable and charismatic Clooney delivers a solid, complex and nicely nuanced performance as a man forced to face his own inadequacies. Although it is a largely internal performance, his voice over narration provides further insights into his thoughts, there are moments when Clooney is permitted to explore his more human side. This is one of the best and most emotionally raw performances of his career, and it strips away his usual glib facade. He runs the gamut from cynicism to unexpected tenderness.
Woodley is a revelation as the headstrong and angst-ridden Alexandra, and she brings unexpected strength and depth to her complex role. Robert Forster brings a sense of gravitas and heartfelt emotion to his small role as Elizabeth’s unapologetically gruff and irascible father. Neil Krause (How To Eat Fried Worms, etc) brings some moments of humour to his role as Alexandra’s obtuse friend Sid.
The film has been shot on location in Hawaii, and Phedon Papamichael’s beautiful cinematography makes the most of the lush settings, although he avoids the usual tourist-like locales.