The Descendants Review
Matt King is a someday man. His wife is in a coma following a boating accident and, as a consequence, he has discovered her infidelity. “I was going to ask you for a divorce,” he says, “ - someday.” This was also when he was going to attempt to piece back together their marriage and when he was going to try to connect with his children. Thanks to her misfortune in a motorboat race someday has finally arrived. Suddenly there is the very real prospect that his life with her may soon be over if she fails to pull through. Plus his daughters - one aged ten, the other seventeen - are now his sole responsibility. The day job doesn’t end either: King is a lawyer based in Honolulu and the sole trustee of 25,000 acres of untouched Hawaiian land on which a decision (whether to sell; who to sell to) is imminent.
As the voice-over makes clear early on the setting for The Descendants is not the tourist board Hawaii. This isn’t the paradise of Elvis movies and Technicolor travelogues but a place for retirees - old timers in socks and shorts - and daytime drinkers. King’s collection of cousins, to use his own words, resembles a bunch of “bums and stuntmen”. This is closer to reality than the King portraying a surfing ex-serviceman, plus the perfect opportunity for Alexander Payne to create more than finely-drawn character comedy he’s become known for. Surprisingly, The Descendants is his first feature since 2004’s Sideways; in the interim there’s been the pilot episode of Hung, an episode in anthology flick Paris, je t’aime, and the unexpected co-writer credit on I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry.
Since making his directorial debut, with Citizen Ruth in 1996, Payne has been slowly moving from making comedy-dramas to making lightly comedic dramas. The satire so intrinsic to that first feature and its follow-up Election have given way to less bitter ruminations on old age (About Schmidt), middle age (Sideways) and now, with The Descendants, death and bereavement. As with the last two efforts there’s room for plenty of humour and quirky, oddball asides. But that central theme remains, overshadowing the whole: a man is about to lose his wife and two young girls their mother. Any acidic traces from Election and Citizen Ruth have since diluted.
Yet the director who once cast Ferris Bueller as an uptight high school history teacher remains. Payne has always had a knack for the unexpected actor choice and The Descendants is no different. The man who saw the potential in sitcom star Thomas Haden Church here does the same with Shailene Woodley, the lead in ABC’s The Secret Life of an American Teenager. Playing the eldest of the two daughters she too, just as the Sideways supporting actor did in 2004, has been gathering up the critics’ awards and nominations for her turn. Much like Haden she also threatens to steal the entire picture, though maybe that’s simply because we expect a solid turn from George Clooney (who plays King) just as we do with Giamatti. For him, The Descendants is yet another fine choice when it comes to selecting intelligent, populist movies. Fans of Out of Sight or Michael Clayton or Up in the Air won’t be disappointed.
Most interesting among the line-up is the presence of Matthew Lillard. He’s even admitted himself that didn’t expect to be on Payne’s radar. Now in his forties he resembles a cross between Andrew McCarthy and Audie Murphy; the actor of Scream and the Scooby Doo movies is in there somewhere, but we barely recognise him. Is this really who was chosen to be Clooney’s onscreen love rival? But that question is exactly the point and indicative of Payne’s overall approach. He keeps the audience on their toes and presents them something just outside of the expected. This is a little different, he’s telling us, but no so far different that it’ll alienate a general audience or come away empty handed at the Oscars. Just like Sideways, The Descendants picked up the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Deservedly so, in fact. Payne’s film successfully navigates the comedy and the drama providing some genuinely hilarious moments whilst never failing to hit the emotional beats. Occasionally he will lean a little too heavily towards the former - once or twice mining Clooney for the same goofiness the Coens’ worked with so well in O Brother, Where Art Thou? - when it isn’t really necessary. But a little misbalance is more than an acceptable asking price for the qualities The Descendants’ provide. It’s a nicely nuanced account of screwed up family dynamics and effects of death. It’s also populated by some wonderful characters (Nick Krause’s insensitive Sid is a real gem out of nowhere) and ultimately really quite moving. To use the cliché: it’s both funny and touching.
The Descendants is released onto Blu-ray and DVD this week by 20th Century Fox in individual editions (with digital copy). For review purposes they have supplied the Blu-ray and so it is this edition which will be considered below.
Presentation-wise this is an excellent disc. A little edge enhancement during a couple of scenes is all that mars an otherwise superb image. The original 2.35:1 aspect ratio is maintained, colours appear to be in line with cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s intentions and the level of detail is superb. A light grain is also present. The soundtrack is present in DTS-HD Master Audio form with a whole host DD5.1 options for alternative languages plus the English audio description. (Even more subtitles are also provided; see details below.) The original offering is suitably crisp and clean for such a recent production and finds an excellent balance between the dialogue and the Hawaiian tunes used in lieu of an actual score.
The extras are plentiful but a mostly mixed bag. Two deleted scenes open up proceedings, each with a text introduction by Payne explaining his reasons for omission. Following these are seven separate featurettes which range from the fawning (eight minutes of Clooney’s co-stars explaining just how great he is; fourteen of the same for Payne) to the pointless (three minutes of the crew waiting for the light to change entitled ‘Waiting for the Light’). Elsewhere we get pieces devoted to the casting process, how to film scenes aboard boats, the Hawaiian elements and so forth. Some interesting insights crop up from time to time but there’s also far too much fluff. Do we really need to know which Hawaiian words and phrases Lillard or Beau Bridges had picked up during filming?
The most interesting additions are saved for last. The World Parade: Hawaii is a silent ten-minute travelogue filmed by Eugene W. Castle. It goes for all of the tourist board imagery The Descendants seeks to avoid plus a look at the landmarks and landscape of the islands. Also present is a 12-minute conversation between Clooney and Payne in which they talk movies, influences and offer up some anecdotes. Free of the fluff that plagues most of the featurettes, it is perhaps the only newly-filmed piece worth watching from start to finish. Rounding the package off, we also find the theatrical trailer. (All extras are presented in 1080p.)