If there is a lighter side to Director Alexander Payne, “The Descendants” is it. For Payne, who gave us the vicious “Election,” the bleak “About Schmidt,” and the sardonic but somewhat optimistic “Sideways,” “The Descendants” is bright and more easily digestible for a wide spectrum of viewers. And it helps that it is a very good film.
In “The Descendants,” Matt King has a lot on his shoulders. A descendant of Hawaiian royalty, he controls the future of thousands of acres of island paradise. But the time is coming for Matt to decide whether to sell that land for millions and millions of dollars or to keep the property in the family. His cousins all have their suggestions, and those competing voices makes Matt’s decision much more difficult.
On top of that pressing responsibility, Matt’s adventurous wife is tragically injured while water skiing. This leaves him to care solely for the couple’s two children ages 10 and 17. And as his wife’s condition, that has left her in a permanent coma, begins to deteriorate, Matt learns that she has been having an affair. It is almost too much to bear.
A child of privilege, Matt has always attempted to live by the safe principals he learned from his father–live on what you need and give your children just enough money to cover what they need and little more. But these good intentions might have created fertile ground for unrest in his marriage and led his wife to take risks that eventually resulted in her injury and possible death. Matt’s practical focus has limited his personal involvement in the upbringing of his children. He admits that he is only the “back-up parent,” the second fiddle now moved to first chair.
In the hands of a less ambitious director “The Descendants” would have been fine made-for-TV fare. But under the control of uncompromising director Alexander Payne, the story plays out with a hard edge, while, at the same time, becoming his most accessible work to date. Part of the success is casting matinee idol George Clooney in the role of milk-toast Matt King. Clooney plays Matt perfectly boxing himself in showing very little emotion until it is absolutely necessary. It is an understated turn that will get him awards notice. As an aside, “understated” will be a common characteristic when awards nominations are handed down this year. Ryan Gosling gave a placid but effective performance in “Drive,” and no one was more subtle, emotive, and in control than Gary Oldman in the Byzantine “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”
But in “The Descendants,” a tame Clooney is surrounded by a fine cast led by new-comer Shailene Woodley, who plays Matt’s eldest daughter Alexandra. A very modern story, Matt’s two daughters are reflective of this loose over-exposed time. They use foul language becoming of sailors, and their respect for authority is limited giving off a very privileged vibe. At times, Alexandra demonstrates advanced understanding of adult situations. She is, after all, the one that breaks the news of the affair to Matt. But Alexandra’s tough worldly exterior is masking great insecurity. She hides behind a boyfriend named Sid who, at first, seems like a stoner surfer boy but might be something more.
The subtle joy of watching the story in “The Descendants” unfold is that it is unpredictable within its family drama confines. It covers a few days in the lives of the characters and takes its time explaining their actions and emotions. But those actions while sometimes route and ministerial offer insight and humor. For example, when Matt and his daughters visit his wife’s father, played by Robert Forster, the old man is rather heartless. He berates Matt for not giving his daughter a better life. Matt calmly takes the insults without argument. It is a tough moment interrupted by a bit of humor that I dare not spoil.
But Payne is not a director that lets his audience off the hook. Things don’t always work out well for the characters in his films. And like life, bad things do happen to the best of people. Sometimes, Payne’s dour view of his fellow man grates heavily on me. I admired “About Schmidt” but could not recommend it. That film wasn’t just a downer for me, but a real downer. By contrast, “The Descendants” is much more upbeat while still retaining Payne’s signature touches. Very few moments feel forced or ring untrue. It is a mature and very good film.