THE STORY – Native islander Matt King (George Clooney) lives with his family in Hawaii. Their world shatters when a tragic accident leaves his wife in a coma. Not only must Matt struggle with the stipulation in his wife’s will that she be allowed to die with dignity, but he also faces pressure from relatives to sell their family’s enormous land trust. Angry and terrified at the same time, Matt tries to be a good father to his young daughters, as they too try to cope with their mother’s possible death.
THE CAST – George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Beau Bridges, Nick Krause, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard & Robert Forster
THE TEAM – Alexander Payne (Director/Writer), Nat Faxon & Jim Rash (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 115 Minutes
Alexander Payne loves dysfunction. He identifies the fault lines of a relationship on screen and explores the ways in which these fault lines can be simultaneously tragic and comedic. Nothing is easily resolved, an attribute that Payne’s films have in common with the 1970s dramas he grew up watching. They are as messy and intermittently beautiful as the relationships we have in real life.
“The Descendants” (2011) is a prime example of Payne’s deceptively tricky skill. The film has the premise and appearance of any number of indie dramas: a man’s life falls apart when his wife falls into a coma, and he struggles to balance work with comforting his estranged teen daughters—adversity, personal growth, etc. There are a dozen ways this premise could be handled, eleven of which are mawkish. Payne finds the twelfth way. The director, who co-wrote the film with Nat Faxon and Jim Rush, manages to impart just the right amount of specificity to make the drama feel distinct.
The aforementioned man is Matt King (George Clooney), a lawyer who spends little time with his family in Hawaii. He’s brought into the fold when his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) suffers a boating accident and discovers that Elizabeth requested she be taken off life support in her will. To make matters even worse, Matt’s oldest daughter, Alexandre (Shailene Woodley), reveals that Elizabeth had been having an affair before her accident. The lawyer is forced to make sense of these life-altering revelations in the light of a massive business deal in which he is the sole trustee.
It’s a lot. Matt is an archetypal Payne character, meaning every possible insecurity of his is realized and explored over the course of the film’s runtime. What makes him distinct is that he’s played by one of the most glamorous movie stars on the planet. Clooney is the antithesis of earlier Payne actors like Matthew Broderick (“Election”) and Paul Giamatti (“Sideways”), which makes it all the more impressive that he’s able to match their exemplary performances. Clooney had taken on unconventional roles previously, but a film like “Syriana” (2005) allowed him to disappear underweight and facial hair. “The Descendants” requires him to strip down and stand, imperfectly, before the camera. The hair is messy; the running scenes are unflattering. The hurt pride never entirely dissipates. In this writer’s humble opinion, it remains Clooney’s finest hour.
Clooney’s performance would not have been nearly impactful were it not for the film’s outstanding ensemble. Woodley is a revelation as Alexandre. She gets in her insults as the rebellious teenager, but she’s given more than a thinly sketched caricature to play and makes the absolute most of it. The rest of the cast comprises seminal “that guy” or “that girl” faces like Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Beau Bridges, and Robert Forster. Strong as their personalities may be, they each find their rhythm within the screenplay and provide their scenes with a specific burst of color. Lillard is particularly good as the man Elizabeth was having an affair with. The scene between his character and Matt is constantly teetering on the brink of hostility, but the messiness of their exchange leads to moments we feel bad laughing at.
We laugh anyway. “The Descendants” would be unbearable if played straight, and Payne understands that people often diffuse the worst moments of their lives with humor, whether appropriate or not. A moment in which the King family reunites with a senile relative is capped with Alexandre’s friend Sid (Nick Krause) getting punched in the face. I cannot stress how important balance is to making these tonal shifts work. In lesser hands, they would bring the film to a screeching halt. In Payne’s hands, the laughs enhance the tears, and vice versa.
A few contrived moments are scattered throughout, and a few instances of characters being unusually frank with one another, but in all honesty, “The Descendants” overcomes them. It’s the sort of resonant, mid-budget film that we see so rarely these days, and it’s a reminder that when Payne is at his peak, few directors are more skilled at depicting the paradox of human behavior.