Alexander Payne’s first movie in nearly a decade (unless you count his memorable segment in Paris, je t’aime) is well worth the wait. Payne seems to be migrating west with his filmmaking. His first few films (Citizen Ruth and Election) both took place in his home state of Nebraska, while About Schmidt began in Nebraska, only to see its titular character take a road trip out west. This was followed by Sideways taking place up the California Coast. Now, with The Descendants, Payne has found himself in Hawaii. Maybe next we’ll get to see his version of the Australian Outback.
The Descendants begins with George Clooney, playing Matt King, a father of two girls whose wife was recently involved in a coma-inducing motorboat accident. While this is going on, Matt is also trying to decide the fate of 25,000 prime acres of land that he and his family own—Matt’s ancestors have owned this real estate for hundreds of years, and it is Matt’s decision as to whether or not the land should be sold. When Matt is told by his wife’s doctor that she is not going to survive, he decides to take his younger daughter Scottie up to the Big Island to pick up his troubled seventeen-year-old daughter Alex so that she can be at home when her mother dies. To further complicate things, Alex lets Matt know that his wife was having an affair just before her accident, propelling the second act as a kind of road-trip movie to track down her wife’s lover Brian Speer (played by a now somewhat doughy Matthew Lilliard).
The Descendants is, at its heart, a story about forgiveness and acceptance. Tonally, it is very similar to Payne’s other films, even though it takes place in quite a different type of location. Alexander Payne is known for taking very well known actors and placing them in roles that are not usual for them. Election, for example, took Matthew Broderick and turned him into the adulterous anti-Bueller. About Schmidt took Jack Nicholson, who had been old for quite some time but who had never played an “old man,” and made him an old man, with an old wife, and a dull suburban existence. The Descendants takes George Clooney and makes him seem, well, average (a stretch for the always charming Mr. Clooney). He plays a lawyer, but not a catch-your-eye lawyer. He plays a dad, but not a cool dad. He wears dad pants, and t-shirts that are just a little too big for him, and a bad haircut. And he does so quite convincingly. He portrays Matt in a sympathetic way, as we root for him to track down Brian Speer, and as we root for him to be a good father, and to make sense of his complicated life.
The supporting players are what truly make this movie soar. Alex is played by Shailene Woodley (known mostly for her work on TV series The Secret Life of the American Teenager, but who proves herself as a serious presence on the big screen as well—keep an eye out for her in the future). Scottie is played by newcomer Amara Miller, who also does a great job. Beau Bridges has a small role as one of Matt’s cousins, trying his best to convince Matt to sell the land and make them all millionaires. Brian Speer’s wife is played by Judy Greer, who delivers a dramatic performance for the usually hilarious actress. The bit parts are all cast by lesser-known, very real actors. This contributes greatly to the realistic feeling of the movie. Alex’s friend Sid is portrayed by Nick Krause, who adds much of the comic relief to the film. There’s a memorable scene in which he gets punched in the face for laughing at Walter’s mother-in-law for having dementia (it’s not quite as crass as it sounds—but only not quite). And then there’s a touching scene where he and Matt have a heart to heart.
It’s hard to call this movie a comedy, because it is extremely sad at times. It’s not quite a drama, either. However, it blends the two genres together seamlessly. It is not a perfect movie, and certainly not Payne’s best. There is an occasional voiceover, as Matt narrates the story, that doesn’t quite work (it probably worked a lot better in the novel on which the film is based). Additionally, the movie tends to drag at times in its attempt to show just how normal, yet beautiful, Hawaii can be (there are maybe one or two too many shots of the Hawaiian landscape interspersed with Matt and his family walking). But with its faults, The Descendants is still well worth seeing. George Clooney’s performance is one of the best of his career, and the film should be seen for that alone. Go ahead and check it out before Oscar season, as it will undoubtedly get its share of nominations.
Movie Review by Mike Danner