Title: The Descendants
Director: Alexander Payne
Major players: George Clooney, Beau Bridges
Out of five? 4
Much of the buzz surrounding Alexander Payne’s The Descendants has been about George Clooney’s performance and the likelihood of him winning an Oscar, which could fool you into thinking the film is simply a vehicle for a star turn. But that would be judging by appearances – one of the many traps Clooney’s character falls into and learns from in this tender, bittersweet comedy.
Matt King (George Clooney) seems to have it all: he lives in beautiful Hawaii, has a successful law practice and more money than he knows what to do with. But when a boating accident puts his wife in a coma, he’s confronted by the realities he’s tried so hard to ignore. Almost a stranger to his two daughters, he has to get to know them and learn how to be a parent. He discovers that his marriage isn’t all he thought it was. And he has to make a decision about a scenic piece of real estate that will, ultimately, affect all of his extended family.
Like its predecessors, Sideways and About Schmidt, The Descendants is about a man in a crisis who gets to know both himself and his world as he has never really known it before. In this case, it’s a tragedy that’s the catalyst, both for the plot and, indeed, for some of the gentle humour that permeates the film. Regular visits to the hospital chart the decline of King’s wife, Elizabeth, as she lies in a coma, from a recognisable person to, ultimately, something much closer to a corpse. Yet the hospital scenes never fall into sentimentality: they’re sad, tender and even slightly grotesque (the younger daughter brings one of her schoolfriends into her mother’s room to prove that she hasn’t been lying about her imminent death), but Payne always keeps them on the right side of mawkishness.
Aside from his wife’s condition and his relationship with his daughters, King has other issues to contend with. He and his father-in-law (a splendidly angry Robert Forster) have, at best, a tetchy relationship, yet neither realises they are in the same boat: they have both lost the women they love (the older man’s wife has dementia) and are watching them slowly die. The discovery that his wife was having an affair and intended to leave him sends King on a hunt for ‘the other man’ – partly to confront him but, more importantly, to give him the chance for a last visit. And then there is the tract of land that has been in the family for centuries: as the trustee, he is responsible for choosing its purchaser and the fate of the legacy he will hand down to his descendants, and theirs.
All of which makes The Descendants sound depressing, but nothing could be further from the truth. Touching, sometimes almost delicate, humour runs throughout the film, created by both the situations and the characters themselves. Matt’s daughters, stroppy teenager Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and would-be stroppy teenager Scottie (Amara Miller) are deliberately outrageous, trying to see how far they can push their alienated father. And Alex’s friend Sid (a nicely-judged performance from Nick Krause) appears to be the typically cocky teenage male – even a black eye from the father-in-law can’t change that, until a short but telling scene reveals surprising hidden depths.
As it’s set in Hawaii, one of America’s favourite playgrounds, the scenery could have been all beaches and vivid colour. There are certainly plenty of beaches, but the beautiful scenery is jammed up against skyscrapers and freeways, so that parts of the islands look like any other American city. There is frequent rain, and the film has an autumnal look, with lots of dead leaves, even in the swimming pool. And the long-awaited colour is saved for the end of the film, when the weather and the emotional turbulance clears and the flowers blossom.
Alexander Payne has put together a thoughtful film which doesn’t shy away from its subject matter. He also gets the best from his cast: the three younger members do well and there’s a nice turn from Beau Bridges as one of King’s tribe of cousins. And then there’s Clooney. His isn’t an easy character to like – he’s too buttoned-up for that – but, as the film goes on, he gains dignity and the audience’s respect, whether it’s for his halting attempts to connect with his children or for his sheer humanity in allowing his wife’s lover the chance to say goodbye. It’s a subtle, unglamorous piece of acting that encourages empathy rather than sympathy – and it’s really rather good.
The film finishes with Matt and his daughters on the sofa, keeping warm under the quilt that had previously adorned the mother’s hospital bed. As they watch March Of The Penguins, Morgan Freeman’s narration talks about how the birds have gone through a long, arduous journey. They’re not alone.