#TIFF11 Review: THE DESCENDANTS is another Alexander Payne Masterpiece

Alexander Payne crafts another solid film about familial dysfunction and the tragedy and comedy that come from it.

The Descendants, dir. Alexander Payne

After creating the Pinot Noir phenomenon and launching the schlubby career of Paul Giamatti into the stratosphere with SIDEWAYS, director/writer Alexander Payne took seven years off to pursue writing and producing projects until thankfully returning in full-form this year with his newest portrait of familial dysfunction in The Descendants. George Clooney stars as Matt King, a real estate agent in Hawaii and, more importantly, the head of a family trust who own the last bit of Kauai’s virgin land. Everyone in the state is watching and waiting on Matt to make a decision that’s not only important to all of Hawaii, but also to his own family legacy.

While he wrestles with this very public judgement call, he simultaneously wrestles with a more private matter that involves his severely injured wife in the hospital. After a boating accident leaves her comatose, Matt is eager to get his family unit into order although years of island-hopping business trips has left him without the know-how to do so. His youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) is navigating the odd tween years where she bullies the outcasts and tries to be accepted by the cool kids. And his eldest daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) is at the age where authority is to be tested and questioned. Now, under one roof this anarchic mix is further swirled by a recent family secret that sends Matt reeling, trying to find his footing, while also trying to find some answers.

The basic premise for any Alexander Payne film can be described as a “situational comedy”, but where that generic label starts to break down is in Payne’s expert sense of when to add dramatic weight behind the laughs. This is what makes his work so unique and so utterly “An Alexander Payne Film”, his unbelievable knack for bringing out the drama and comedy in equal doses. Everytime he’s able to bring levity to an emotionally caustic scene using a reaction or a single line and it’s never with heavy-handedness. The laughter and tears co-exist as they do in life: naturally.

In The Descendants he has a worthy lead in George Clooney who’s able to deftly navigate the many emotional landscapes of the story. Clooney is so good in this role—career-defining and I predict Best Actor winning—that towards the end he’s able to pull off one of the most beautiful and heart-wrenching scenes in recent memory. It makes me well up now just thinking about it. It absolutely blindsides you, but works because both director and star spend the previous 100 minutes laying down the groundwork of tonally balanced comedy and tragedy. They don’t do it all on their own though, they’re backed by a quirky supporting cast, from Human Giant Rob Huebel, as family friend Mark; to Robert Forster, in full kick-ass crotchety mode as Grandpa Scott; to Matthew Lillard, who feels out of place for all the right reasons. The biggest standout is Shailene Woodley, as the eldest daughter, who stands toe-to-toe with Clooney in every scene they’re in and never has a false note.

So far this year, The Descendants is the most well-rounded cinema experience I’ve had. Every facet and variation of human emotion is explored in what could’ve been a simply straightforward “situational comedy” about loss and love. Though in true Alexander Payne fashion, we’re able to plumb the depths of sorrow while being able to laugh on the way back up. It’s good to have Payne back, let’s just hope he lessens the amount of break time between his masterpieces.