The Descendants (2011)
We’re so used to seeing George Clooney as a smooth operator, a guy who coasts on his suave charm and chiseled-from-granite good looks. But in The Descendants, Clooney is more vulnerable than he’s ever been, trying to keep his family together, and as the film plays out we realize just how mighty a task this goal is. His character is ill equipped to take the lead of his family, especially a family of growing girls he is consistently confused with. His journey is much more than just becoming a better father. That lesson would be far too pat for director/co-writer Alexander Payne. It’s been a good while since Payne’s last film, 2004’s Sideways, but in that time away he has shaped another outstanding human comedy that manages to squeeze in more emotion than most Hollywood movies could ever hope for.
Matt King (George Clooney) is a self-described “backup parent” who has been thrust into the lead role. His wife, Elizabeth, is in a coma after suffering a traumatic head injury from a Jet Ski accident. The doctors say that she has no hope of waking up and she will die in a matter of days. Matt must break the news to his 10-year-old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) and his rebellious older daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). The headstrong Alexandra clashes with her faltering father, finally revealing the reason why she blew up at mom months ago. She found out that Elizabeth was having an affair. Matt is reeling and searching for answers from friends, family, and his two daughters.
Payne’s specializes in pitch-perfect bittersweet character-based comedies, ones that seem to unfurl over a journey of self-awakening. His fictional worlds feel exquisitely rendered, where every character beat and every line of dialogue feels genuine. That’s quite an achievement for a filmmaker of any scope. Even when dealing with caricatures (like in 2002’s About Schmidt), somehow Payne gets away with it. With The Descendants, the sunny setting of Hawaii is just an exotic backdrop for some wonderful, and wonderfully relatable, family drama. It’s hardly the worry-free paradise. Uncovering his wife’s secrets has lead Matt to reassess the woman he loved. The movie completely upends the standard deathbed goodbye trope. Instead of characters openly bawling about the loss of a saintly soul taken far too soon, we have characters dealing with real conflicted emotions, particularly anger, directed at the indisposed and unfaithful mother. Every character is approaching grief differently, and every character is trying to make sense of their feelings before Elizabeth’s inevitable passing. Matt’s father-in-law (Robert Forster) is harsh with accusations at the ready, blaming Elizabeth’s tragedy on Matt’s shortcomings as a husband. His pain is raw but al too recognizable. Matt and Alexandra are plotting how much info to reveal to young Scottie, trying not to ruin her image of her mother, a tremendous challenge with no easy answer.
This is the stuff of grand drama, and Payne doesn’t skimp on the heart-tugging moments. The Descendants is also a great comedy, naturally finding humor drawn from the situation and characters. The advertising has made The Descendants appear like a broad family comedy, with Clooney flapping around in his noisy flip-flops. This is not the case. The comedy doesn’t feel insensitive or too macabre, instead it adds another enlightening level to these people and their pain. We try and make sense of our world, to cope with our struggles and failures, with comedy, and so too does Matt and his family. You’ll probably be surprised how often you laugh and then in the next moment feel a lump in your throat. The character of Sid (Nick Krause) starts off as a questionable plot tagalong, a doofus for some easy laughs. His reaction to an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s is the movie’s one point of questionable validity. As the film progresses, this laid-back guy is revealed to have more layers, just like the rest of the clan. The second half of the film becomes something of a minor key detective story as Matt and Alexandra search for the elusive “other man.” As Alexandra eggs him on, the two bond over this manhunt and Matt becomes bolder, more confident, and clear-headed about the hard decisions that are necessary for his new life. The emotional rewards of the film are nourishing. Watching Matt and his daughters sit on the couch watching a movie together (March of the Penguins no less. Draw your own connections about parental turmoil), you’ll feel satisfied that this broken family has begin to heal itself.
The Descendants takes an interesting turn when we learn more about the other man’s background. Matthew Lillard (Without a Paddle) is actually respectable as Brain Speer, the real estate titan having the aforementioned affair with Elizabeth. Matt’s confrontation is subdued, sidestepping righteous grandstanding for a better attempt to seek understanding. Instead of lecturing Brian, he wants to know more about what his wife was after that Matt could not offer. Sure he’s still angry and doesn’t let the guy off easy. Complicating matters is the fact that Brian has a wife, Julie (Judy Greer), and two children. Matt is trying to find answers without willfully harming Brain’s family. Greer (Love Happens) has an outstanding sequence where she feels beholden to forgive rather than hate, a note of grace that feels rather profound.
Clooney at one point says he’s just trying to keep his head above water, and you can see why. The man shows a great deal of range as his character confronts his grief. There is no “right” way when it comes to grieving, something deeply personal. Matt’s dilemma is given an unlikely situational twist, but the feelings of betrayal and confusion are all too believable. Matt is looking for answers when the person who holds them all lies sleeping. As he develops a lager picture of his wife and her unhappiness, Clooney expertly flashes through a multitude of thoughts. While arguably not as textured as his performance in Up in the Air, Clooney is in fine form, showcasing a deeper sense of loss and anxiety. Matt is trying to find his footing while his world radically adjusts, and nothing has adjusted more than his feelings toward his wife. Clooney doesn’t have any Big Moments of Great Emotion, though lashing out at his comatose wife comes close, but the man’s nuanced portrayal of a life in flux is the stuff that award ceremonies were made for.
Woodley is a remarkable discovery, more than holding her own with Clooney. She is excellent in her portrayal of an aggressive, mouthy, rebellious teenager. It’s all the more astonishing because Woodley’s long-running TV show, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, is one of the worst shows still running on television. The show is so inartful, the dialogue is so tin-eared, and the acting is wooden like the actors have been imprisoned. Where has this actress been the whole time? Woodley’s performance is so alive with genuine feeling, stripping away any reservations of the too typical bratty teen role. She’s much more than a troubled teen sent off to boarding school. Her every inflection, hesitation, motion feels completely natural for her character, and when Woodley gets her big dramatic scenes she is a force to witness. Upon the sudden news that her mother will die soon, she plunges underwater in the family pool and screams as loud as she can, tears squeezing out of those sorrowful eyes. For goodness’ sake, this girl cries underwater. An Oscar nomination is assured for the 20-year-old young actress. Maybe she can quit her crummy TV show after the wave of good press and fawning praise that await her.
The Descendants is an incredibly observed human drama, a humane and touching comedy, a movie so engaged and plugged in to the messiness of human emotions, eschewing the bitterness of some of Payne’s earlier works. This is a thoughtful and nuanced flick that is elevated to even grander heights due to the excellent performances of father/daughter team Clooney and Woodley. The film hits all those traditional emotional notes but on its own terms. The movie approaches a graceful resolution by accepting the incomprehensible disarray of life. The Descendants is just about everything you’d want in a movie: supreme acting, strong characters, an affecting story, and emotions that are completely earned. Payne’s mature and tender movie is, by the end, rather hopeful, a celebration of family overcoming adversity. It’s not schmaltzy in the slightest but a powerful antidote to simple cynicism. This holiday season, be a good movie citizen and spread the word of The Descendants.
Nate’s Grade: A