November 15, 2011

FILM OF THE WEEK: The Descendants

by Vadim Rizov

The Descendants

The Descendants' beginning and ending bookend the film with bad ideas. At its intro, Hawaiian lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) is throwing out obvious metaphors in ceaseless voice-over ("A family seems like an archipelago"); at the end, there's a scattering-the-ashes scene scored to Wyndham Hill-esque light guitars that practically scream how restrained writer-director Alexander Payne is being. But most of what comes in-between gets it right: The Descendants is a reminder that tearjerkers aren't always made with the notion of crudely wrenching heartstrings.

Alexander Payne, writer-director of THE DESCENDANTS

This is surprising, because it seemed Payne would never become a fully-fledged dramatist. Citizen Ruth and Election are impeccably ruthless satires, but—like the proverbial comedian who really wants to play Hamlet (e.g., the Robin Williams trajectory)—Payne couldn't leave well enough alone. 2002's About Schmidt strove to convey the poignancy of an elderly Midwesterner coming to grips with his mediocrity and mortality via brutal close-ups of Jack Nicholson's wrinkled face and Kathy Bates' equally unprepossessing ass. One was intended as tender, the other as grimly funny, but it came out all wrong, setting up a weird unintended equivalence between the two.

2004's Sideways was an improvement, with Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church as opposites-attract comic foils for a road trip less mortality-suffused than Nicholson's. Finally leaving his native Nebraska entirely, Payne apparently instructed cinematographer Phedon Papamichael to over-light the California outdoors, as if that would force the director to literally lighten up. Still, an unintended sense of doom hung over the mostly comic proceedings in the knowledge that Giamatti would eventually have to Confront His Failings and Come To Peace With Himself. The ending was portentously understated in only the way a devoted admirer of Yasujiro Ozu can be; Payne (a serious cinephile) is on the record as a fan. There's nothing more dangerous than someone trying to imitate the famous climactic realization of 1953's Tokyo Story, where a smiling woman admits "Life is disappointing, isn't it?" Try to get the melancholy tone just right, and a self-congratulatory smugness creeps in. The finale of Sideways might as well have its own boasting commentary track: "See how much I've held back, what deep emotions I've refrained from turning into Oscar speeches?"

The Descendants

The Descendants doesn't strain so hard. Matt King is Payne's first protagonist who doesn't have the luxury of repeatedly doing the wrong thing; his wife Elizabeth's (Patricia Hastie) dying in the hospital after a waterskiing accident and there's no time for freaking out. Not only does King have to look after his daughters and inform friends and family they have only so many more days to pay their last respects, there's 25,000 acres of virgin Hawaii land to sell off to a developer. The Kings' claim to the territory is coming to an end, a hard deadline that can't be pushed back to accommodate personal grief. When he learns Elizabeth was having an affair, he's determined to track down her real-estate agent paramour Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard!); a trip to Kauai, where Speer's on vacation with his family, will also help get everyone out of the hospital, a recognizably real and claustrophobic environment soundtracked by the ambient beeping of heart monitors.

Matt's purpose is grim: find Brian, tell him he knows about the affair and that Elizabeth is dying if he wants to pay his final respects. The trip—the bulk of the running time—is an unexpected breeze; away from home and hospital, Matt and his daughters can slip out of their daily antagonisms. His youngest, Scottie (Amara Miller), has been sending horrific text messages to a girl in her class. Older sister Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) is introduced stumbling drunk on the beach at her boarding school and is an eye-rolling, dad-dismissing nightmare at home. Away from the house, Alexandra looks after Scottie—helping Matt to keep the awful truth from the young girl as long as possible—and helps him track down Brian. Accompanied by Alexandra's thick-as-a-brick boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), the family comes together as a functional unit: long walks on the beach, non-quarrelsome evenings in the hotel, and a general consensus that Brian needs an ass-kicking. Nothing brings an angry family together quite like a common outside enemy.

The Descendants

With the shadow of Elizabeth's impending disconnection from life-support systems hanging over the family, every light-hearted bonding moment is earned rather than evasive, delaying grief as long as possible. What doesn't work at the end is the last-minute acknowledgment that the Kings (check that name out!) and other white residents are, arguably, the illegitimate heirs to a territory that was only annexed in 1898 for nakedly mercenary ends; having ignored this the entire film, history is hastily, obligatorily worked into Clooney's last-act speechifying about protecting the land and doing the right thing—which is rancidly self-serving and ignorant.

Wisely, however, most of The Descendants doesn't shoehorn in the Big Picture. Instead, it lets the father-daughter(s) relationship take center stage, a first for Payne. Even when Matt's obsessing over his wife's adultery, he never has more than five minutes to spazz before it's back to taking care of his kids and legal obligations. Accordingly, The Descendants is far more likely to go for a moment of goofy comedy (many courtesy of Sid, one of those kids who seems perpetually stoned even when he's straight) than a tragic breakdown; the tone shifts without warning, as fluidly responsive as Matt is forced to be. No longer prone to cruel, crude outbursts, Payne's now the mature filmmaker he wanted to be. He may yet make a tragedy as spot-on as his satires, as he's come awfully close here.

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Posted by ahillis at November 15, 2011 1:34 PM