George Clooney is a man dealing with the imminent loss of his wife as well as an assortment of other family issues in The Descendants, another wonderfully messy downbeat comedy-drama from Alexander Payne.
The movie’s opening shot gives us the only look we have at a conscious and lively Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie). She is on the water (in a power boat, we later learn), wind in her hair, looking excited. That was 20 some days ago. Now, she is in a coma after a boating accident and, the doctors tell her husband Matt (Clooney), not going to recover. Her situation will deteriorate, the doctor tells Matt, it’s time to think about taking her off the machines (as her living will dictates they must) and telling people to come in and say goodbye.
Matt, who as he tells us in narration is the backup parent to his two daughters, is overwhelmed enough by caring for the 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller). Hoping for some help — with Scottie and maybe with the task of bringing Elizabeth’s life to a close — he goes to get his 17-year-old daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) from boarding school on the big island of Hawaii to bring her back to the family home on another island. She is, we figure out, a bit of a wild child. When he picks her up she’s drunk and when she wakes the next morning, she’s angry. She’s been doing well at school but hasn’t received any recognition for it from her parents and she’s still steaming from a fight she had with her mother.
The trailers give it away but SPOILER ALERT for those who want no additional plot knowledge: the fight was over an affair. Alexandra saw her mother with another man and is, as a result, disgusted with both her parents — her mother for unfaithfulness and her father for general inattentiveness.
Now Matt is a man mourning the impending loss of a woman he maybe didn’t know. He learns from her friends that she was in love with this other guy, a man who he learns is a real estate agent named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), and perhaps planning to divorce Matt. I was planning to divorce you one day too, Matt tells her motionless body.
Anger and confusion over this part of Elizabeth’s life have the strange effect of bringing Alexandra and Matt together. She eggs him on in his search for Brian, joined most of the time by Sid (Nick Krause), a doofusy-seeming friend of Alexandra who has surprising depths. In between telling Elizabeth’s family and friends that the end is here, Matt and Alexandra continue their farcical search.
All of this is set against the backdrop of a land deal. Matt’s family descends from a missionary and his wife, a Hawaiian princess. In addition to generations of wealth (which Matt doesn’t spend — a friction point in his marriage as he is determined only to live off his earnings as a lawyer), Matt and his cousins are the owners of a huge tract of undeveloped land. Matt is the head of the trust but is forced by a change in the law to sell the land (thus enriching his many cousins). It seems everyone he runs into has an opinion about the land — and most people not related to him don’t want him to sell.
Alexander Payne does imperfection brilliantly. Not just the overheated nuttiness you see in Election and Sideways but also the loving but flawed characters in movies like About Schmidt. Here we get a family that outwardly appears to be a solid, enviable family — two nice daughters, a successful lawyer husband with family money, an attractive and adventure-seeking wife. But it turns out each of these characters has her (and in Matt’s case, his) own inner turmoil to deal with. In many ways, each is an unknown to the others. Elizabeth and Matt had slipped apart in recent years and we come to suspect that the affair wasn’t the only thing pulling them apart. Matt seems like a man who could become set in his ways without examining why he always takes the side that he does. And Matt admits that he hasn’t done a lot of the parenting, having left it to Elizabeth. Now he seems bewildered by his own children — Scottie going through a little pre-adolescent nuttiness made nuttier by the situation with her mother and Alexandra an angry, opinionated but also surprisingly thoughtful girl. The scatteredness of the kids makes their characters feel even more real. Ten-year-olds can be kind of nuts — just starting to leave bits of childhood behind but still not the teens they’re a few years away from becoming. And Alexandra seems like a good example of the hot-and-cold nature of teenagerhood. She is angry at and maybe disappointed with her father but also deeply loyal to him just as she misses her mother while still being deeply mad at her. The girls are never one note and neither is Matt’s reaction to them. Clooney does a good job of giving us a man just barely keeping from sinking under all the turmoil he’s dealing with. He nails this kind of role — partly comic, partly put-upon — in a way that he doesn’t quite succeed as much as some of his bigger action or political roles.
I’m sure nothing I’ve described here seems particularly funny but the movie does have its funny moments — not just dark, clever asides but truly laugh-out-loud moments. And, like many a Payne movie, The Descendants also has moments that are so simple but so heart-piercing that you’re almost shocked at how affecting something so quiet can be.
The Hawaiian setting isn’t just the source of beautiful scenery; it also gives the movie a kind of melancholy. So much beauty, so many problems. Life in Hawaii isn’t one big vacation in paradise, Matt tells us at the beginning of the movie, showing us scenes of poverty on the island. Though Matt’s world is a part of the beauty of the region, it has the same sense of squandered promise and ignored problems internally that exists externally in Hawaii’s slummier parts.
And I’m sure that sounds overwrought, but it isn’t. Even when it’s through narration, the movie delivers its message with nuance. The Descendants comes together remarkably well. It may not be your holiday feel-good movie, but it is a well-crafted, thoroughly enjoyable film. A-
Rated R for language including some sexual references. Directed by Alexander Payne with a screenplay by Nat Faxon & Jim Rash and Alexander Payne, The Descendants is an hour and 55 minutes long and distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.