The Descendants Review
George Clooney delivers a standout performance in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, the director’s first feature since 2004’s Sideways. Boasting a clutch of strong performances alongside that of Hollywood’s Most Handsome Man, this comedy drama is perfect Oscar bait but can’t quite match its predecessor for wit or memorably vivid characters. Yet it can still boast a silver thread of subtle humour woven into a captivating drama about a husband struggling to cope with his children in the face of tragedy, betrayal and a family inheritance. By turns moving and amusing, this slightly odd offering may not be offbeat enough for fans of Payne’s previous work, and may be a shade too low-key for those expecting a more straightforward Clooney movie.
Matt King (Clooney) is a lawyer living in Hawaii whose life is turned upside down when his wife is seriously injured in a boating accident and falls in to a coma. Suddenly faced with his failings as a father (he describes himself as the “understudy” parent), Matt struggles to deal with his wayward teenage daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and her young sister Scottie (Amara Miller). To make matters worse, he is told by Alex that her mother was having an affair behind Matt’s back. And on top of that, Matt’s extended family is putting pressure on him to sell the many acres of unspoilt Hawaiian land their family has owned for generations to commercial developers.
The Hawaiian setting is perhaps the key to The Descendants. Almost a character in their own right, the islands infuse the film with their own unique sensibility: a surface veneer of laid back calm and beauty beneath which lurks an occasional propensity to erupt in to turmoil. The soundtrack too heavily features Hawaiian music, imposing tranquillity on a situation that is anything but tranquil. But don’t be fooled in to thinking the choice of location is just an excuse for some pretty background shots. The film delights in smashing the traditional image of Hawaii as paradise usually seen on screen. There’s barely a patch of blue sky to be seen; instead, heavy grey clouds dominate the skyline, and surfboards are entirely absent. And just to underline the point, Matt says right at the beginning: “Paradise? Paradise can go fuck itself.”
Even so, there aren’t many dramatic fireworks on display here - that’s not Payne’s style. He favours a sort of quiet contemplation, reflecting on the complexities of life by combining in equal parts the serious, the trivial and the absurd. It’s surprising how often they appear together. Even as Matt tries to cope with the effect his wife’s sudden passing is having on his children, he sets off to discover who she was having an affair with – a journey that turns out to be both painful and blackly comic. The humour is mostly provided by his daughters, led by Shailene Woodley’s spiky performance as the teenager who not so much nudges as pushes her father in to accepting his wife’s betrayal. She’s a terrific foil to Clooney’s restrained, responsible paterfamilias as they hop around Hawaii looking for the mysterious man, as is the stereotypical surfer dude boyfriend she brings along for company.
But this is Clooney’s film all the way. I don’t think there’s a single scene without him, save the opening shot of his wife just before the accident. He is clearly on top form as a man grasping at the broken remnants of his former life, struggling to bring order to chaos. We never see the man he was, only what he has become, and Clooney succeeds in conveying an impression of a successful career guy suddenly humbled by life.
Beyond that, the film’s pleasures begin to thin out. The other sub-plot concerning Matt’s decision on whether to sell the family inheritance never really comes to anything, the Hawaiian soundtrack begins to grate after a while and the outcome can be seen from a mile away. But none of that spoils what is otherwise an engaging and thoughtfully made piece.