Alexander Payne is back to doing movies, and the results are amazing. The man hasn’t made a feature since Sideways, a movie I’ve grown to hate over the years. In The Descendants, he reminds us that he’s a talent that deserves all the attention the world has to offer, and he pushed George Clooney into a career performance. It’s at once hilarious and devastating in that way Payne near perfected in About Schmidt, and it’s steeped in howlie Hawaiian culture in a way you basically never see in films.
This is a picture that might get ignored come Oscar season, as it’s not as high profile a project as your Tintins and your Girl with the Dragon Tattoos, but it’s still likely to be one of the best experiences you’ll have in a movie theater this year.
Director: Alexander Payne
Release Date: 11/16/2011 (New York City, LA, and other select markets)
Matt King’s (Clooney) life is a shambles. His wife (Patricia Hastie) is in a coma, following a boating accident, and he has no clue how to deal with his daughters, one in boarding school (Shailene Woodley) and the other (Amara Miller) too young to deal with what’s happening to her mom. On top of that, Matt is in the middle of a family squabble over a selling a large patch of land owned by his ancestors, dating all the way back to old Hawaiian tribal royalty. As he begins to sort out his wife’s final wishes, he starts to learn more and more about his wife’s secret life and has to deal with the increasingly dire consequences.
We’ve always known that George Clooney was an amazing actor, but he absolutely knocks his role in The Descendants out of the park. Right off the bat, we learn that he’s not the best father in the world, and that actually shows. Instead of a lot of fairly cliched, half-hearted attempts to show this, we can see it in his eyes, in his expressions as he tries, often in vain, to understand how to deal with his kids. He just can’t. Even at the end of the movie, he’s still imperfect in his attempts at fatherhood. He’s been the “back-up parent” for nearly twenty years, and it shows. It’s a standout performance of the year, and it will be a disgrace if Clooney doesn’t at least pick up an Oscar nomination.
The two daughters are equally astounding. I haven’t seen any of Shailene Woodley’s television work, as it’s mostly a lot of fodder that’s not really my taste, but she’s a genuine talent. She’s got that bratty, acting-out edge that you see in rich young teens, but even before we get to know her, there’s this frightfully intelligent girl underneath the drinking and the drugs. Amara Miller, the younger sister, is actually in her very first film role, which I was astounded to learn. She’s the odd girl of the family, lashing out and acting bizarrely as she attempt to process what’s happening to her family. She’s only eight or ten; of course she can’t cope with the fact that her mother may be dead in weeks. She’s often the hardest to watch, as that sort of innocent sadness she exudes can hit all too close to home for those that have lost a loved one early in love.
The film is shot entirely on location in Hawaii, so it’s no stretch for you to imagine that it looks good. However, this is not accomplished by a lot of sweeping vistas of beaches and mountains (though we gte a few of those snuck in as well). One of the film’s central themes is to dispel the notion that Hawaiian culture is just beaches and parties and a bunch of fat dudes sitting on the beach drinking mai tais and getting baked. This film’s Hawaii is in the weirdly static homes that the locals live in, in the tourist-free spots where folk are trying to make a living, same as anyone else in the world. It’s an odd sort of beauty, but it’s unique, and I fell quite thoroughly in love with it.
What will really stick with me about this movie, though, is the central line about families and legacies. Matt’s legacy is in both the family he’s struggling to put together and in the ancestral plot of land his family wants to sell for a quick cash grab. We question out own familial legacies, the ones we make and the ones we come from. How much should we sacrifice of that legacy for the betterment of future generations? They’re universal issues that also skew towards a terribly personal sense.
Despite some occasionally tedious plotting, and the occasional moment of blind stupid luck forwarding the plot along, The Descendants created one of the most heartfelt experiences I had at the movies all year. Great cast, great direction, good writing. There’s not a lot more you can ask for.
Also, it’s got Beau Bridges. If Beau Bridges can’t get you into a theater, then fuck you.