The Descendants (2011)
115 min., rated R.
Alexander Payne hasn't made a film since 2004's "Sideways" and he has yet to misfire. His latest, "The Descendants," is a film so intimate and honest that it leaves even more of a catharsis. It stands perfectly strong next to Payne's body of work (1996's "Citizen Ruth," 1999's "Election," 2002's "About Schmidt," and "Sideways"). Jim Taylor has always been Payne's writing partner, but now Payne works from a script, based on Kaui Hart Hemming's novel, that he co-wrote with Groundlings improv troupe members Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. The writer-director has branded himself a filmmaker of sharply observed American comedies about characters on the verge of a crisis, and "The Descendants" is no different.
George Clooney plays Matt King, a lawyer, husband, and father living on the island of Oahu, descending from Hawaiian royalty. He comes from a lineage of owning 25,000 acres of land on Kauai that he and his cousins have an obligation to sell. But his priorities change a bit when his thrill-seeking wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), is critically injured in a boating accident and lies in a coma. The doctors inform Matt that she will never wake up and make the decision to unhook Elizabeth from life support. Being emotionally distant as a husband and father in the past, Matt now has to take on the responsibilities of "the back-up parent, the understudy" for his two daughters, ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and rebellious seventeen-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). After retrieving his reckless eldest daughter from the Hawaii Pacific Institute, where she was supposed to get her act together, Matt has to make his rounds to family and friends with the tragic news of his popular wife. Before he tells anyone right away, Alex drops a bomb on her dad, the answer to why she and her mother stopped getting along: Elizabeth was cheating on him. Already grieving, Matt is immediately stunned and becomes angry, with hopes to track down the man his wife was "seeing."
Wise, human, and moving, "The Descendants" is not the kind of big Oscar-bait film you overpraise, but a small film that you embrace. The script is intelligent, funny, and surprising, zigging where you expect it to zag and perfectly capturing life's imperfections. Payne and his co-scribes capture the complicated line between grief and anger that even has Matt asking himself the following question. If his wife is about to die, does it really matter if she had an affair? What good will come of finding "the other man" anyway? Life's just messy that way. For once, Clooney isn't playing a character that's so outwardly charming and smooth, or living to wear a rich suit. He may still have the George Clooney looks, but is playing a cuckhold with a lot on his plate. Watching an actor in foreign terrain is exciting, and Clooney turns in a subtle, seriocomic performance of sadness and complexity. His sprint down the road in dad flip-flops upon hearing of the affair is endearing, and the goodbye to his wife is genuinely powerful.
The real revelation is Woodley (mostly known for ABC Family's TV series "The Secret Life of the American Teenager"). She's self-destructive and mouthy, but takes care of her younger sister in ways Dad cannot and in the process of finding her mom's lover, Alex mends the relationship with her father. When Matt breaks the news about Elizabeth to his daughter, as she's back home with her insubordinate attitude turned on high and swimming in the pool, Alex sinks to the bottom to cry and continues crying as she swims to the surface. What a small, heartbreaking moment it is, and Woodley shows she's capable of raw emotional extremes. As Scottie, the natural and spirited Miller even holds her own without mugging for the camera.
Across the board, the supporting cast makes the most of scant screen time. Matthew Lillard, as "the other man," is a surprising stroke of casting and does his finest, most low-key work in quite some time. The confrontation between Clooney and Lillard goes in directions you don't expect. Nick Krause is another surprise, playing Sid, Alex's doofus, hanger-on boyfriend that tags along with the family for moral support and stoner advice. Sid could've just been dopey comic relief and a total caricature, but over the course of the film, he evolves with more depth and humanity. Very special mention goes to the invaluable, underrated Judy Greer, as Lillard's wife, who finds lovely moments of heartache in just three scenes. Robert Forster, as Matt's very stern father-in-law, is effective, too, as he never comes off as just a drill-sergeant jerk. He puts his daughter on a pedestal and blames Matt for her accident, but doesn't know the whole story.
As for the story's exotic backdrop, Hawaii is decidedly not seen as a touristy paradise or solely shot for its postcard panorama. Although the locals have a laid-back lifestyle, it's still a place of real-life issues. In Clooney's voiceover narration, he even states that his friends on the mainland think of living in Hawaii is "like a permanent vacation" where they all just drink Mai Tais and catch waves. On that note, often in films, a character's voiceover seems like such a lazy crutch for visual storytelling, but Clooney's narration is used sparingly and never gets in the way. With only five features under his belt, Payne is one of the few writers today that nails the gray area between humor and emotion without losing subtley, never going over the top or coming off preciously quirky. When a film can deftly counterbalance humor and pathos, and still ring true, it really should not be taken for granted. And when "The Descendants" comes out being more hopeful than depressing, you know you should say "mahalo" to Alexander Payne.