Apart from his short contribution to the anthology Paris Je T’aime, it has been eight years since Alexander Payne last directed a film, which was the Oscar-winning Sideways. Known for his satirical approach in works like Election and About Schmidt, his long-awaited follow-up to his 2004 indie hit is more straightforward and mellow as The Descendants features gorgeous George Clooney having a family crisis in Hawaii.
Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, Clooney plays Matt King, a lawyer who is more concerned about work than family as he’s concentrating on the King’s family’s ancestral land dealings. When his wife Elizabeth is injured in a boating accident and now in a coma, Matt realises that he hardly knows her and their two daughters and is forced to re-examine his past and embrace his future.
Those who adored his back catalogue will feel that Payne’s latest lacks a satirical edge as the director is working on a more subtle drama without his usual screenwriter Jim Taylor. On the other hand, Payne hasn’t lost the that touch of balancing drama and comedy as the film opens with a narration by Matt who describes his current family difficulties, including his wife’s coma, whilst rejecting that whole theory that living in Hawaii is paradise, as he perfectly says: “paradise can go fuck itself”.
The film’s strengths are within the first half, in which we see Matt who was always “the backup parent” now has to become the father towards his daughters, each with their own problems, including one which also becomes Matt’s as he finds out about his wife’s affair. This section alone is when the story is at its most dramatic as well as featuring some humorous moments, including the protagonist arguing with his comatose wife.
However, as the story is being pushed into more about Matt’s search for his wife’s lover, it misses the point about what the film is really about, which is the family dynamic. That’s not to say that the second half doesn’t have its moments, not least from Beau Bridges as Matt’s chilled-out cousin Hugh and a touching sympathetic performance from Judy Greer.
In the lead role, George Clooney (who has been nominated for this year’s Oscars) has never been more vulnerable as you’re not going to see a performance like Michael Clayton. For instance, we see one of the most prolific movie stars crying his eyes out a number of times, of which we are emotionally engaged with, whilst also having subtle comic timing. As for the two fantastic daughters Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller, the standout is the former as she plays an uncontrollable teenager with a rage wanting to come out.
Despite the exotic beauty of its locations, Alexander Payne shows a touching and tragic dramedy about a man (brilliantly played by George Clooney) coping a family crisis, with moving and hilarious results.
DIRECTOR: ALEXANDER PAYNE
SCREENWRITERS: ALEXANDER PAYNE, NAT FAXON, JIM RASH
STARRING: GEORGE CLOONEY, SHAILENE WOODLEY, JUDY GREER, BEAU BRIDGES, MATTHEW LILARD, ROBERT FORSTER
COUNTRY: UNITED STATES
RUNTIME: 115 MINS