A Human Instinct
Movie Review: "THE DESCENDANTS"
Published: Thursday, November 17, 2011
Updated: Friday, November 18, 2011 14:11
It seems that sometime in the past seven years, Alexander Payne developed a heart. For better or worse, the auteur behind such nihilistic satires as "CITIZEN RUTH" and "ELECTION" as well as vitriolic character studies like "ABOUT SCHMIDT" and "SIDEWAYS" has gone ahead and grown a streak of sentimentality. And while it will certainly make him a much more commercial filmmaker (and much more viable when awards time rolls around), I can't help but bemoan the loss of one of the American cinema's great pessimists (to be fair, his last two films, "SCHMIDT" and "SIDEWAYS", were a good few notches more hopeful than his first two, so this isn't totally unexpected). I can't help but feel that "THE DESCENDANTS", for all its undeniable strengths, is certainly his least interesting film.
George Clooney stars as Matt King, playing very far against type (to varying degrees of believability.) He's awkward (the sight of him sprinting across the street in flip flops is a sight to behold), unsure of himself, and constantly pushed around by others, not least of all by his preteen daughter. After his wife suffers a serious injury in boating accident, King is forced to re-appropriate his decisions in life and reconnect with his aforementioned daughter, his other child (a troubled 17 year old sent off to some form of boarding school), and the rest of their collective family and friends. The films major concern is in the way King begins to understand everyone around him with far greater empathy than he did previously (thanks to a wonderfully internal performance from Clooney, who has always been excellent but is getting far quieter with age), mainly thanks to some delayed reveals about his marriage.
One other thing: they're all filthy rich. The film takes place in Hawaii, where King is in charge of a land trust that has made him, his cousins, and the generations preceding them incredibly wealthy. The trust is soon to dissolve; making now the time to cash out and allow the land to bring them from wealthy to ludicrously rich. All his cousins, represented through dialogue solely by the sadly undervalued Beau Bridges (looking more and more like his brother Jeff as he ages), seem to have burned through their allowances already. I don't think its any surprise for me to reveal that Clooney's coming-of-age regarding his wife ties in very neatly with his eventual decision regarding the land trust. While Payne still writes dialogue that exudes naturalism and is unexplainably impressive in avoiding cliché, it seems his plot cannot match his voice in terms of originality.
I'm not spoiling anything, because this is all revealed in a far-too-tidy narration that drags the first reel down like an anchor. Even Payne himself has noted in interviews how awkward the device feels in comparison to the narration in his films like "SCHMIDT" and "ELECTION", and I can't help but think that the film would be totally coherent without it. Yet once "THE DESCENDANTS" finds its stride about a half-hour in, it's impossible not to get wrapped up in the world created by this veritable celebration of great character actors. Robert Forster steals the show as King's father-in-law, whose materialistic scorn is made up for by his (justifiably) violent bluntness.
"THE DESCENDANTS" explores territory as dark as Payne has ever navigated, yet his humanistic instincts are stronger here than ever before. Every character, from Forster's bereaved father to the silly stoner boyfriend of King's teenage daughter, is offered a moment of stoic solitude; all given true respect by Payne's camera and attention. "DESCENDANTS" is about the way Clooney comes to observe these stoic moments with the same grace that we (hopefully) feel as an audience, we study him as he begins to understand human interaction for the first time in his life. And when the film could dip into moments that seem unbelievable or overdramatic, Payne is able to find a mix between comedy, anger, and pathos that feels truly real. And Clooney is able to hold the film together with his constantly confused gaze; he may as well be a shoo-in come Oscar season.
"THE DESCENDANTS" ends on a soft note; far less daunting, devastating, or overwhelming as the perfect moments that close Payne's previous films. It's a good measure of the film on the whole: it's quieter, more reserved, and less original than the rest of his work, but still undoubtedly worth seeing. While he started as a Preston Sturges type; skewering all manner of society in biting satires, he's growing into a filmmaker obsessed with character, conversation, and internal obstacles overcome. It may not be audacious, but it's still one of the most well written and wonderfully acted films of the year.