With Sideways, Alexander Payne may have been rewarded with a justly deserved Academy Award for screen-writing but even that film was just a sign of things to come. With The Descendants, Payne easily outdoes his work in the former film in every imaginable way. Sideways, as good as it was, still had minor problems and there were a few scenes towards the end where I felt he certainly went overboard. No such complaints can be made against this film which is just the perfect display of human emotions delivered in Payne’s typical humorous fashion. That helps keep the overall tone of the film light for us to enjoy and appreciate what is easily the best of the 2011 offerings I’ve seen so far.
Payne’s biggest strength as a writer and director is his ability to populate his stories with fully developed three-dimensional characters. This was true especially of his last two films – About Schmidt and Sideways – where he perfected the combination of comedy and drama effectively. This trait is the defining aspect of The Descendants. Whereas both the earlier films had their faults in the way certain characters had been written, every character in this film has been defined with uncommon depth that they never seem like movie characters. This is the kind of film which I adore but rarely get to see anymore.
At the center of it all is Matthew King (George Clooney) whose wife Elizabeth has gone into a coma as a result of a boating accident. A lawyer and workaholic, Matt has never fulfilled his duties either as a husband or a father to his daughters: 17-year old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) whose constant misbehaviours have resulted in her being moved from school to school and 10-year old Scottie (Amara Miller) who is growing up quicker than Matt can handle. In addition to suddenly being asked to be responsible for his daughters, he is also in the midst of a discussion with his cousins as to whether a huge family property under his trusteeship should be sold which would result in a considerable amount of wealth or held under their trust for the time being. His entire world comes to a halt when Alex informs him that her mother had been cheating on him with real-estate dealer Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) who himself is happily married with a wife (Judy Greer) and two sons of his own.
What I loved about The Descendants was that there were characters that would’ve turned into caricatures at the hands of many other directors. Take Alex’s best friend Sid (Nick Krausse) for example who initially seems to be there only for lightening up the mood, this is the kind of character who many would’ve used solely for comic relief. However, Payne is able to provide a real sensitive side to his character as he acts as a moral support to Alex and her father at times. The same goes for Shailene Woodley’s Alexandra. Too often, I get turned off by the over-the-top portrayals of teenagers in these kinds of films. In contrast, Alex was a living, breathing 17-year old who is devoted to her father and cares for her sister. She also loves her mother but is unable to forgive her infractions. Even characters like Matt’s cousin Hugh and Julie Speer, the other spouse, have been written with such a depth that I haven’t seen in many similar films.
George Clooney deserves the Academy Award for his work in this film. There was a time when I thought it would be impossible for Clooney to shed his innate charisma and charm. He is an actor who can turn it on and light up the screen in an instant. However, here fully devoid of all those defining attributes, he brings Matt King to life. Like Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt, we never see the star, only the character and credit goes to both the director and the actor for that. The real surprise package of the film was Shailene Woodley whose performance simply left me stunned. Whatever the challenge posed to her by the script and the director, she matched it step for step. It also needs to be said that the beautiful relationship between Matt and Alex depicted in the film was possible because of the chemistry between Clooney and Woodley.
Amara Miller’s Scottie is largely in the background but the young actress nails the one critical scene where the news that her mother is never going to wake up is broken to her. Judy Greer is terrific in the few moments she is on-screen. Robert Forster, playing Elizabeth’s gruff dad who doesn’t think much of Matt, is equally good while others like Nick Krausse, Matthew Lillard, and Beau Bridges prove once again that Payne gets the best out of his actors.
Cinematography and Music are the other two strengths of the film. I was already impressed with Phedon Papamichael’s brilliant lenswork in The Ides of March and he captures Hawaii in its entire natural splendor in this film. The Descendants is a film that I feel will grow on me with multiple viewings. It currently sits on top of my personal 10 from 2011 with just a few films from December still in my backlog. If you ask me right now, I would say I want it win in the Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay categories for the Oscars.
- Banner image used falls under fair use and taken from Flickr