Click here to hear the audio version of Mark Elloff’s review of this movie.
Picked up at the Telluride Film Festival, “The Descendants” is the rare mix of comedy and drama that is successful in both genres. The writing and cast gels perfectly, pushing the difficult subject matter into cinematic gold.
From Alexander Payne, the creator of the Oscar-winning “Sideways,” set in Hawaii, “The Descendants” is a sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic journey for Matt King (George Clooney) an indifferent husband and father of two girls, who is forced to re-examine his past and embrace his future when his wife suffers a boating accident off of Waikiki. The event leads to a rapprochement with his young daughters while Matt wrestles with a decision to sell the family’s land handed down from Hawaiian royalty and missionaries. (Synopsis by Fox Searchlight)
What makes this film so successful is the strength of Clooney’s acting. An easy choice for award season, he should clean up with his stark portrayal of a father caught in an increasingly difficult situation. Compounding the heartbreak of a tragic accident are the revelations involving his relationships with his daughters and comatose wife. Early on, the interfamily relationships are strained by the revelation that Matt’s wife has been cheating on him. This sets off a series of events to find the mystery interloper for closure. It sounds like familiar territory, but masterful writing prevents the characters from descending into archetypes.
Whether this is one of director Alexander Payne’s best films is debatable. His style and touch are ever present with the strongest moments captured with little fanfare. Some of the best shots introduce each scene into focus by close-cutting Clooney’s pensive face barely holding it together. What separates this film from a “Hereafter” is the seamless transitions between deep drama and comedic relief. Perhaps the best example is the seemingly ancillary character Sid, who later becomes a mainstay to the plot via careful development. “Sideways” made you care about the characters because of their innate humanity. “The Descendants” walks this same line by taking deeply flawed characters and making the audience desperately care about them. Such a rare gift in writing is hard to find.
Complicating the family tragedy is the overarching theme of Hawaiian colonialism that is deftly handled, albeit remotely from the main story line. Playing the displacement of a native people against a man displaced from his family is a mark of brilliance.
If there is criticism to be found, it is in the early scenes. The first part of the film is largely a work of heavy drama. While this threatens to sink the story, the writing pulls out of the downward spiral by the halfway mark. Complicating that situation is the immediate requirement to accept Matt King as an irresponsible husband and father simply because he thinks he is. Little hard evidence is present except for his interactions with his daughters. Even crueler is the portrayal of Matt’s wife as the ultimate villain in the tragedy while spending the entire film comatose and unable to defend her choices. At best, this problem is presented during the revelation of her infidelity by her close friend. While it is addressed, it is not resolved except through the forgiveness of the other characters.
The early sequence of the film has a voiceover of Clooney stating that people think Hawaii is a paradise. They forget that people live there, work there, love there, and die there. Just like anywhere else, family will disappoint you. And sometime surprise you. In the same way, Payne finds a way to surprise you with a quietly powerful film more in line with the everyman than the cast of movie stars.
“See It/ Rent It/ Skip It”: See it. The adult choice in this strong week of holiday-oriented releases.
THREE AND A HALF STARS out of four.
Directed by Alexander Payne. Written by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash.
Rated R for language including some sexual references.
Runtime: 1 hour and 50 minutes