Alexander Payne’s fifth feature film may move at a leisurely pace, but is packed with subtlety and no less powerful human tragicomedy that never attempts to avoid the difficult subject it deals with.
In an opening monologue, musing on his wife’s condition, Matt King (George Clooney) observes that most people probably think of Hawaii as a paradise, but in reality it is a city like any other. It would be very easy to feel the same way about the films of Alexander Payne, who after winning over cult audiences with the wryly observed Election, went on to be held up as the darling of the indie crowd following the massively popular but no less excellent Sideways. Yet that success is a double-edge sword, and despite some executive producer duties, The Descendants, adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel, marks his first feature in 7 years. Rather than sit back on his laurels, perhaps Payne took advice from his lead character. “Paradise”, concludes King “can go fuck itself”.
After his wife falls into a coma following a boating accident, Matt discovers that she was having an affair with a real estate broker. Facing this shocking news, coupled with the grief he must now face, lawyer Matt travels from his Oahu home to the island of Kauai, where he also tries to reconnect with his daughters, the younger Scottie (Amara Miller) and the angry teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). Meanwhile, as the descendant of Hawaiian royalty, he and his cousins, including Cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges) must decide upon the fate of their trusteeship of a large piece of inherited wilderness.
Clooney’s soliloquy at the start of the film may have been about not taking paradise at face value, but the same could be said about The Descendants. What looks like a typically schmaltzy dramedy about a family reconnecting never takes you where you expect it, and much of this has to do with the performances. Clooney has been steadily carving out a niche for himself these last few years in roles that betray his Hollywood mega-stardom, gladly playing fools in Burn After Reading and The Men Who Stare At Goats. Clooney’s performance in this film captivates even more than the one he directed in The Ides of March, and he delivers a subtle performance perhaps unlike any he has given us to date. There is real pain mixed with the levity, and he is fascinating to watch at work here.
The younger cast of Amara Miller and in particular Shailene Woodley and her surfer dude boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) not only work together in perfect harmony, but are the reasons why you can’t judge this adaptation of a book by its cover. Woodley’s Alexandra appears to be a perfect brat at first, incapable of basic human niceties, while Sid is written-off as a fool. Yet in the great tradition of Shakespearean tragicomedy, it is the “fool” who often speaks the great words of wisdom and the learned elders (in this case Clooney and a fantastic Beau Bridges, channeling an angrier version of his brother Jeff’s “Dude”) who do all the ridiculous things in the name of reason. We do question why Payne and Clooney had the teenage Woodley in a bikini for most of the film though.
Holding together this terrific ensemble is solid script, penned by Payne and comedic actors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, and there is definitely an actor’s sensibility here. If there is a flaw the film, it is that it often looks for these screen moments for the actors somewhat too consciously. Yet the steady pacing of Payne’s film, coupled with cinematographer (and frequent collaborator of both Clooney and Payne) Phedon Papamichael’s lush photography, makes this the cinematic equivalent of sinking your feet into the sand and letting the waves gently massage your legs.
The Descendants is released in Australia on 12 January 2012 from Fox.