Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Descendants (2011)

There's an utterly schmaltzy, tear infested trainwreck of a movie lying in wait under the cover of Alexander Payne's new drama. Just look at what we have here: Comatose, dying, wife and mother - check. Infidelity and its effect on a family - check. Man dealing with how to reconnect with, and raise his daughters - check. A family property dispute - check.   See what I mean? 

Miraculously, Payne uses those elements to craft a move that doesn't have a single moment that feels manipulative, or any emotion that rings untrue. Maybe it's the Hawaiian setting, though George Clooney's Matt King would likely disagree with me on that count. In his opening monologue (Payne sure uses a lot of voiceovers doesn't he? I seem to remember the climax of Election featuring 15 minutes of interwoven voiceover) Matt vents his frustration at people who  think his Hawaiian life is every bit of the paradise the postcards make it out to be. As the movie starts, his life is far far away from reflecting any kind of idyllic bliss: he's drifted away from his family only to find himself pulled back with his wife's accident leaving her comatose. As he struggles to figure out how to deal with his girls, he's hit with the news that his wife isn't going to wake up - and that she was cheating on him with a man she was in love with. Meanwhile, he is the sole decision maker in a family property dispute that is closely being followed by what seems to be the entire state of Hawaii: the family wants commercial development, the denizens want it to be left alone. 

The Descendants works perfectly because it gets one central idea right - empathy. This is a warm movie, one that deeply cares about its various characters, that refuses to paint them into stereotyped corners based on the archetypes they represent. Matt genuinely wants to do good by his family, but is clearly at a loss, and stoops to asking his older daughter's friend for advice on how to deal with them. Those daughters of his recognize the effort he's making and stand up for him when the time comes. His bitter father-in-law is allowed a moment of catharsis; the wife's lover is allowed to have his say; and we even get to meet his wife, to complete (and complicate) our picture of the tangled situation. 

George Clooney gets to continue his remarkable streak with this performance, which allows him to crumble and strengthen before our eyes, a remarkably vulnerable performance from a man whose screen persona is often the epitome of suave and self-assured otherwise. Shailene Woodley as his older daughter is an absolute revelation, lighting up her scenes with assured grace. The Descendants comes into the Oscar season with 5 nominations, including picture-director-actor combo, fresh with a Golden Globe win for Best Drama. I don't know if it'll take the prize - it doesn't feel showy enough for the big win - but it represents a fine addition in the race. 


  1. George really got the dad-living-the-quiet-life down pat. The way he runs, talks, the kind of clothes he wears, even his hair style. So removed from his usual Danny Ocean type roles.

    As much as I liked the movie, it's IS a Fox Searchlight Dysfunctional Family Drama. But it wasn't typical... far far more raw and and non-quirky, unlike Little Miss Sunshine/The Kids Are All Right type movies. And definitely not contrived like Juno. So it still has a fighting chance at Best Picture. But I have a feeling Payne might swing Director... but only if they give Woody screenplay as consolation prize (let's face is: Midnight in Paris SO deserves the screenplay prize).

  2. actually, while Midnight in Paris has a wonderfully inventive script, I think A Separation is much more worthy of the award - very complex, and the way it makes a family legal drama play out with the pace of a thriller is absolutely brilliant. Of course, I'm sure the Academy will think that the nomination is enough for those Iranian folk. sigh.

  3. This is ONE overrated movie. As far as dysfunctional family comedy-dramas go, there have been far better examples in the past and I'm pretty sure, there'll be better examples in the future. Payne has done and can do better than this. Giving him the award for this would be the travesty of the decade considering he's up against Scorsese, Woody and Hazanavicius - three storytellers at the top of their game this year. And as for Clooney, well, he does in this movie what he usually does best - play George Clooney with varying degrees of intensity. I'm rooting for Dujardin.