Since his 1996 film breakthrough with the equal-opportunity offending abortion satire Citizen Ruth, and abrasive follow-up Election (1999), Alexander Payne has made a series of novel adaptations focusing on frustrated, middle-class men who are shocked into self-awareness: About Schmidt, Sideways, and now The Descendants.
Based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’s 2007 novel, this latest film, after a seven year hiatus, is the director’s most mainstream movie yet. Payne has always tended to look at society from the perspective of a curious, puzzled alien, but now the alien has grown moist-eyed and affectionate.
Perhaps that’s why this big heartache of a movie has already been hailed as an early Oscar favourite, with George Clooney earning particular praise in an uncharacteristically vulnerable role as a grieving spouse, inept father and cuckold. The hype actually does the movie a disservice, for the best way to enjoy The Descendants’ emotional balancing act is to keep expectations modest.
The film’s brusque beginning actually feels like the pilot episode of a widowed-dad TV series set in a resort locale. Clooney, as Hawaiian lawyer Matt King, gripes about mainlanders’ perception of Hawaii as a paradise (paradise can go fornicate itself, he growls) before listing his real problems. His wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) has been in a coma for almost a month after a water-skiing accident, breathing through a tube stuck in a hole in her throat, and Matt’s not coping well with single fatherhood. He has always seen himself as “the backup parent, the understudy” to his daughters, precocious 10-year-old Scottie, and rebellious 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley, at a residential school on the big island of Kauai).
Then there’s this life-changing land deal that’s pending. Matt, descended from a Hawaiian princess and a foreign banker, is the trustee to a half-billion dollar piece of ocean-front land, which his extended family is anxious to sell to a developer. “How ironic,” notes his father-in-law (Robert Forster), that Elizabeth’s misfortune coincides with Matt’s family coming into a fortune.
Early scenes establish Matt’s withering exasperation with Scottie’s earnestly obtuse teachers and the insensitive mother of one of her classmates. When Elizabeth’s doctor gives Matt the bad news about his wife, he decides it’s time to fly to Kauai to bring Alex home. He finds her, not in her dormitory as expected, but drunk on the beach. The next morning, the sullen Alex drops a bombshell: “You really don’t have a clue, do you? Dad, mom was cheating on you.”
This fresh bad news energizes Matt: He runs, with as much indignant rage as a man can muster in an aloha shirt and flip-flops, to his neighbours to find out who was sleeping with his wife. The new twist propels the story forward, as Matt and his daughters head off on a double-purpose quest, to inform the family members of Elizabeth’s impending death, and to confront her lover. Payne and his effortlessly likeable leading man, Clooney, manage the shifting emotional tones deftly, with the most solemn dramatic moments often tipping suddenly into broad comedy.
Secondary characters are written to formula, with first impressions flipped to their opposites: The rebellious daughter turns loyal ally; her stoner boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), is an idiot who proves wise; Matt’s hippie cousin (Beau Bridges) is a greedy materialist. Elizabeth’s lover, the snake in the garden if you like, is just another hustler in a gaudy shirt - a glad-handing real estate agent (Matthew Lillard) with his own spouse (Judy Greer) who deserves better.
There are some soft-edged art-house touches here – the odd rhythms of the editing, the cutaways to the ever-changing landscape, and the moody slack-key guitar score that sounds like a gentle dirge – but mostly, Payne plays it tender and safe. At the beginning of the movie, we’re told that paradise is not what it seems, yet after the first couple of jolts, The Descendants evolves in a line surprising only in its predictability.
- Written and directed by Alexander Payne
- Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley and Matthew Lillard
- Classification: 14A