In a manner befitting the style of director Alexander Payne, The Descendants walks the wire between heartbreak and humor with absolute ease. Payne creates a film that so delicately (and impossibly) embodies contradictory sides: soap opera-like drama with (sometimes stoner) comedy, metaphors of life without all the cheesy implications and a stereotypically dysfunctional family with absolute realism.
Sitting directly opposite the Hollywood-manufactured blockbusters, The Descendants has a quiet impact. It flows from scene to scene in a manner that is not just life-like, as in the movie version of life, but life-like, as in the messy, unpredictable, genuine thing. In adapting the 2009 novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, Payne and co-screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have made a movie without scenes. Characters are people, simply crossing paths, having oddball conversations that start in one place and end up someplace else completely. Protagonist Matt King, played by George Clooney, is full of the no bullshit pragmatism that so reflects our physical existence.
“Paradise,” he says, “can go fuck itself.”
Living on the so-called Eden that is Hawaii, this postcard-perfect location is also ripe with poverty and grime, as Payne likes to remind us in his opening shots of Hawaii’s more developed side. Likewise, King’s life is not the idyllic paradise that may be expected of a rich, land-owning attorney. With a comatose wife due to a waterskiing accident off Waikiki (yes, you read that correctly) and two angry daughters (teen angst and daddy issues galore), Matt King has a hard time making decisions — about his real estate, his wife’s condition and his parenting technique. King works to put back together the fractured state of his life, broken due to his workaholic tendencies, and each step is both sad and amusing in near equal proportions.
Clooney has struck gold here; he has been given a perfect chance to capture that elusive Best Actor Oscar — some say, at least. It’s true that though The Descendants has a bonafide movie star in its central role, Clooney checks his ego at the door. For a man that has really aged gracefully, his age does grace the screen in a refreshingly humanizing way. As Clooney awkwardly jogs in his flip-flops and his arms hang monkey-like from his short-sleeved shirts, he delivers a very funny, very raw character. The actor’s natural magnetism does not dominate the film, but it complements the impressive performance of his fellow stars.
Shailene Woodley plays one of King’s daughters, the 17-year-old Alex with a chip on her shoulder. The Secret Life of the American Teenager star hasn’t proven much in her role as a pregnant teen on ABC Family, but her performance alongside Clooney’s is formidable. Though teen angst over a father’s absence is nothing new, Woodley’s version is quite believable. In fact, in one scene where Alex delivers a shocking twist to her father, it is Woodley’s smart performance, and not Clooney’s, that is most memorable.
Similarly, Alex’s druggie sidekick, Sid balances the heavy moments with his goofy comedic relief. In one occasion where Sid, played by Nick Krause, dispenses hilarious advice to a distraught King in all his loose pothead logic, it is Krause and not Clooney that steals the scene. Throughout the movie, it seems, Clooney acts as an ensemble player, not exactly being outshone by his co-stars but instead yielding his efforts for altogether greater impact.
Perhaps the film’s greatest limitation is not necessarily Payne’s fault. The movie and book’s focus on the wife and her indiscretions automatically turns King into the victim. With a wife in coma, conveniently unable to defend herself, King’s character so easily garners all the sympathy. We are left feeling cheaply manipulated by the situation. Would we have liked King as much had it not been for this fact? For a man with many flaws, perhaps King is all too likeable and not in a way that Clooney, an actor capable of emotional complexity, should be.
Nevertheless, even the film’s imperfections serve a purpose. As a movie that celebrates human imperfection, it is, of course, imperfect. Sometimes even master director Payne makes mistakes, but like King, it is these mistakes that better integrate the film’s commitment to reality. Laughs may come with a sting and paradise may come with exceptions, but as The Descendants shows, emotional tumult comes with grace.
Original Author: Alice Wang