The Descendants – 2011
Directed by Alexander Payne
Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Robert Forster, Barbara L. Southern
Screenplay by Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, based on The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings
“I don’t want my daughters growing up entitled and spoiled. And I agree with my father – you give your children enough money to do something, but not enough to do nothing.”
George Clooney has learned to do more with less as time moves on. He never started out with much to begin with. The thing is the selection of good material. If an actor has the gravitas to pick the better films and that person also happens to be a decent actor, everyone benefits. The merging of Clooney with the writer/director of Sideways could only be made better if they had put Paul Giamatti somewhere.
The Descendantsfeels as authentic as one can imagine life in Hawaii being. The key to this equation is that people, even in paradise, can experience the same type of difficulties that people in other, less desirable looking places. Matt King (Clooney) is sitting on a fortune, but you would not know it based on the way he lives. He and his various cousins are in the process of selling 25,000 acres of the best, still native land in Kaua’i. Complicating matters in the biggest way is news that his wife, Elizabeth, has been in a boating accident and now lay in a hospital, comatose. And she isn’t going to get better.
When he retrieves his oldest daughter (Woodley) from boarding school, he finds that she is in an angry, rebellious mood. She is mad at her mother because her mother was cheating on Matt, but really cheating on them all. This is just the second layer of the ever peeling onion. It only gets more complicated and painfully severe the deeper one goes. Payne does an impressive job digging through material one would be hard pressed to consider escapist entertainment and making it not only relatable, but entertaining. He has a deft touch for understanding that humor is mined from the most painful events, that characters, when presented correctly, are more than they seem in the first frame.
The real find of the film is, ironically, Woodley. She has the presence of a young Natalie Portman, but is much more in touch with her feelings. If she avoids making major blockbusters involving blue screens, she just may amount to something of a major star. Woodley herself is almost worth the price of admission.
Clooney, as usual, is excellent. His performance lacks the histrionics that most scenery chewing actors would relish in a situation like this. My only complaint is that as much depth as he applies to the character with his ever-expanding repertoire of facial expressions, there is not much more to the character than suffering, having people do him wrong, and being expected to be a rock for everyone else. His dilemma is presented perfectly by his interactions with cousin Hugh (Bridges). Hugh, like most of his family, gives a passing pep talk to Matt about the situation and then quickly moves on into what he wants Matt to do for him. This may be indicative of real family situations, but it is not indicative of anything about Clooney’s character other than he is a nice guy that people expect things out of. His decision to avoid living off of his potentially vast fortune just adds to this Fred Rogers aspect, without adding much in the way of an exciting character trait.
This method works for the development of Woodley’s Alex. She gets to treat her Dad like dirt at first, and then, when it is apparent that he is still a good man, she moves from rebel to hardened and cynical advocate. Everyone benefits from this arrangement in the story, but only Woodley gets traction as a character.
The interesting, if difficult, task of The Descendants is the grief and agony caused by a character that we only see conscious (albeit silent) in the opening frames of the film. There is much grief and agony over the choices she made that we, the viewer never saw. It’s a different approach to most dramas, as the MacGuffin of Elizabeth King as a live, conscious person gives the people plenty to talk about. As thankful as I am for any chance to see Robert Forster’s ever wizened face painfully fighting through whatever circumstances his character faces, his burden to present a character that everyone else on the screen has problems with is an uphill battle. Judy Greer, is a welcome and beautiful presence in the film, as the other aggrieved spouse. The moment where she says goodbye to Matt and Alex on the porch is the seminal moment of the story. The look in her eyes is profound, wise, wounded and graceful. I found myself wishing that she and Clooney would get together, until I realized that would be stealing from the movie Random Hearts.
Hawaii is filmed differently, but still beautifully in The Descendants. I can only assume we get to see some of the sides of the beautiful state that one would not normally see unless they live there. There are also plenty of wonderful shots of Clooney in various states of disguise, exasperation, etc. that would satisfy many viewers. His face is a landscape that appeals to many, and Payne takes full advantage.
If you like Sideways, this one is just one Giamatti short of being that good. It’s definitely worth watching, but don’t expect to find a character that gives you any sort of internal conflict.