Alexander Payne is a director who doesn’t make films very often but it’s wise to pay attention when he does. His last effort was the sublimely brilliant Sideways in 2004, a wine-fuelled examination of middle age, failure, regret and loss which was a masterpiece of character-driven writing.
On paper, it doesn’t sound very funny, but it’s actually hilarious and The Descendants has a similar tone – a comedy drama which has the ability to make you laugh at unlikely situations.
George Clooney plays Matt King, a successful Hawaiian property lawyer whose family were among the first white people in Hawaii to own land. He’s faced with a tough decision. As head trustee, he has the casting vote on whether to sell off a large tract of their land to property developers for big bucks or keep it unspoiled for future generations.
He’s also forced to deal with a personal tragedy as his wife (Patricia Hastie) is hospitalised and left in coma after a speedboat accident and her living will specifies that her life support is to be turned off. This in turn forces him to reconnect with his daughters – 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) who is acting out at boarding school, and 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) who’s being bullied. The situation is further complicated when he discovers that his wife had been having an affair with a local property developer and he resolves to confront him.
Like Sideways, the synopsis for The Descendants – a man attempting to rebuild his relationships with his kids, struggling with parental responsibility which he has, up till then, avoided while his wife lies in a coma – doesn’t sound like it’s going to make for a laugh riot but Payne’s film is equal parts touching and funny. That in itself is a major achievement – it’s sad without being maudlin and amusing without being disrespectful – it finds humour in bleak situations and is beguilingly honest about life’s ups and downs.
This is one of George Clooney’s best performances to date. He’s proved his dramatic chops over the years but so far his comedic potential has been relatively untapped (O Brother Where Art Thou notwithstanding). Here he displays an admirable gift for physical comedy – a capering run to a neighbour’s house is one of the highlights of the film – but also an emotional sensitivity and intelligence to his character which is extremely rare.
The kids too are wonderful, in particularly Shailene Woodley who conveys a range of emotion that most experienced leading actresses would really struggle with. There’s also a great performance by Nick Krause as her stoner friend Sid who almost steals the show from Clooney in an unexpectedly heartfelt sequence.
But as excellent as the performances are, there are a few scenes which come off as a little too pat, a little too neat. It occasionally approaches the themes of alienation and inheritance with brush strokes that are a little too broad and ties too neat a bow around loose ends. That clashes with well-written characters who feel like wholly three-dimensional thinking beings, not mere ciphers for tropes – it doesn’t have quite the uncompromising cutting edge that made Sideways so excellent.
But despite some minor gripes, The Descendants is a well-written, incisive and perceptive comedy drama. It might not be quite the cinematic heavyweight that its five Oscar nominations imply but it’s got emotional depth and genuine heart – qualities which should be highly praised.