MOVIE REVIEW: The Descendants
Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley and Rob Huebel
American writer/director Alexander Payne specializes in films about distraught characters experiencing prolonged time periods of emotional duress. Whatever the root cause (death in the family, demotion, romantic breakup), it isn’t nearly as important as the duration of the character’s suffering. Some expectedly grumpy and resentful incarnations (Paul Giamatti’s Miles in Sideways) have sprung from this cinematic obsession, yet Payne instills a sense of compassion in their tortured existences, an underlining spirit that never breaks no matter how bad the situation becomes. This mixture of tones has made Payne an essential voice in American cinema since his debut Citizen Ruth in 1996.
Payne’s new film The Descendants, in which an upper-middle class lawyer comes to terms with his comatose wife’s infidelity, deals with another emotionally repressed man mired in uncertainty. Set entirely on the Hawaiian Islands, Payne’s breezy character study is equally concerned with the rhythms of location and the way setting impacts a certain mood or emotion. After a hypnotic opening shot of a woman enjoying the ocean air on a water ski, The Descendants settles in with a voice-over heavy monologue by Matt King (George Clooney), a snarky bit of self-wallowing that might come across as pandering and smug but is actually nicely indicative of his character’s inability to move past the obvious problems at hand.
Issues of lineage dominate much of The Descendants. Matt’s wife Elizabeth (the woman in the opening shot) has just suffered a catastrophic boating accident and is bedridden and unconscious, forcing him to step up from the role of “back-up parent” and take care of their two daughters, rebellious teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and younger tween Scottie (Amara Miller). There’s also pressure from Matt’s large extended family involving a lucrative real estate deal involving thousands of acres of pristine Hawaiian land that will have national economic implications. To make matters worse, Matt is completely oblivious to the fact Elizabeth was cheating on him with another man, information that is revealed during a particularly powerful verbal throw down with the feisty Alexandra.
As Matt and Alexandra continuously grapple with the emotional turmoil left in the wake of Elizabeth’s betrayal, Payne addresses the power of facades in both family and business matters. This theme presents itself in multiple dramatic scenes where specific character’s either retreat or turn away from crushing bad news, turning what initially seems like a public act of denial into a private moment of grieving. It’s in these small details of character that The Descendants works best.
Despite the potentially dire subject matter in The Descendants, Payne momentarily holsters his patented razor-sharp wit for something more sublime. While there is plenty of profanity-laced posturing by Alexandra and Scottie, Matt’s struggle is largely internalized. His pain spills over in key moments, like when Matt sprints to a friend’s house to confront them about Elizabeth’s infidelity, or in the final bedside confession he shares with his wife where words finally fail him. In both scenes, Clooney’s immersive facial expressions, pathetically desperate in the former and lovingly sincere in the latter, speak to the wonderful juxtaposition of emotions you can find in any one of the film’s vibrant frames. Even though The Descendants might lack the uneasy mix of dark and absurd that defines Payne’s best work, it effortlessly calibrates one man’s resistance to impending self-destruction, not through bleak melodrama, but in the blinding rays of a faux paradise refreshed into something tangible.
The Descendants opens Friday, November 18 in limited release at the Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas