Movie Review: THE DESCENDANTS Stumbles But Recovers Gracefully

Devin continues catching up on 2011 reviews! Next up is Alexander Payne's first film since 2004, the George Clooney-starring THE DESCENDANTS.

I hated the first ten minutes of The Descendants. Despised them. I contemplated walking out of the movie; after all if the film started this terribly, how could it ever possibly recover?

The first ten minutes feature George Clooney doing this monotone voice over explaining every aspect of his life. His wife lays in a coma after a boating accident; meanwhile he is the executor of a family trust that owns the hugest patch of untouched wilderness in Hawaii, and they are deciding to whom to sell it. Meanwhile he has two daughters to deal with, one who is a chubby nine year old and the other who is a troubled, drinky teen.

The only comparison I can make to the awful voice over at the beginning of the film is the text crawl at the beginning of Dr. Boll’s Alone in the Dark - endless, too straightforward and filled with information that could have been conveyed in a million better ways.

But there’s a miracle once the voice over drops out: the movie gets good. It gets really good, in fact. It gets honest and unsentimental and stays just this side of quirkiness (but Christ does it ever push its luck in one or two scenes) - in other words it finally turns into an Alexander Payne movie.

Payne’s the best cinematic chronicler of White People Problems, mainly because he understands the universal problems that are the basis for even the honkiest of troubles. Deciding on which multi-million dollar deal to take for your family’s long-held Hawaiian land isn’t something most of us can identify with, but Payne - who wrote the film with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (yes, Community’s Dean Pelton) based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings - gets to the simple humanity of each of his characters in a way that we can understand.

There’s not a lot of meanness going on in Alexander Payne movies, and The Descendants might be the least mean of them all. Beau Bridges shows up as a cousin who is sort of a dick, but even his dickishness comes from an understandable place. And he’s the worst guy in the movie - which is saying something since the plot of the film hinges on Clooney discovering that his comatose wife was having an affair, and he goes looking for her paramour.

The big star of the film, I think, is Hawaii. The opening narration tells us that life in paradise is just as tough as life on the mainland, and includes some shots of the homeless and the strung out to prove it, but the rest of the movie is spent in fancy homes and on resort beaches; the whole film is like a postcard. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael shoots the film with a matter of fact attitude about the beauty of the landscapes, but there’s no way to avoid that this is one of the most gorgeous places in the world.

Jostling for second place behind the islands are George Clooney and Shailene Woodley. It’s a pretty great role for Clooney, allowing him to be charming but also deep, and not forcing us to pretend that he’s anything but one of the most handsome men alive. George Clooney should simply never play working stiffs, but laid back lawyers with huge inherited estates feel directly up his alley.
The doctors tell Clooney that his wife won’t pull out of the coma, and she left a very specific DNR, so she will soon die. The search for the other man is a complex one - partly a masochistic need to see the guy for himself, partly a desire to confront the guy and partly a selfless attempt to let this guy have some closure before the wife dies. And very much a need to escape a situation that has become so very, very dark. Clooney aces it, keeping all of the emotional balls in the air at once. He’s very much understated, making the moments when he does lose some emotional control all the more potent. His exasperation, which he has often used to great comic effect, is lovable and not threatening or jerky. His sadness has depth, but is never showy.

If Clooney is great, Woodley matches him move for move. That’s surprising because I had literally never heard of her before this film. She plays the older daughter, and it’s a performance that is completely emotionally real and sensitive. Woodley is often stunning, never going big or getting histrionic, playing her character with a level of lived in realism that is foreign to many older actors. The character of Alexandra is no less complicated than that of Clooney’s father, and Woodley is wonderful in every facet. It doesn’t hurt that she’s absolutely gorgeous to look at, either, a young natural beauty that complements the Hawaiian vistas.

There are a lot of other terrific performances - Payne knows how to work with actors - but two were truly surprising. Nick Krause plays Sid, a goofed out surfer boy who tags along for the story, and while he’s beyond annoying at first, Krause imbues him with an amiable likability long before the script reveals its heavy-handed humanizing fact about him. The character makes no sense in the story at all from a logical point of view, but he’s kind of great to have around.

The other shocker is Matthew Lillard as the other man. Yes, Shaggy is pretty great in this film. Lillard has only one scene to really create his character, and he makes him wounded and perfectly flawed. He’s a jerk, and he’s selfish, but he’s not trying to hurt anybody - and sometimes that makes all the difference in the world.

If we’re talking actors it would be totally wrong to leave out Judy Greer, who almost steals the film at the end. The Descendants has a lot going on, thematically, but coming to terms with the past is a biggie, and Greer has an emotional and funny scene that really puts a touching bow on that.

The Descendants is dealing with some heavy grief issues, but it never panders. There’s a lot of droll comedy throughout, but the spectre of the wife - withering away without life support - looms over everything. Payne’s too tasteful to wallow in the tears, but he doesn’t shy away either. There are tough moments, sad moments, but they all end up feeling cathartic. Most of all they feel earned.

For some the opening ten minutes of The Descendants may be an insurmountable obstacle; I can’t blame them. But for those who stick it out, who have faith in the director of Election and Sideways, The Descendants is a lovely, moving experience.