Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Descendants

Alexander Payne hasn't made a feature film since 2004's Sideways, which many consider his best (though About Schmidt gets the crown, as far as moi is concerned). And while his latest film, The Descendants, doesn't quite rise (though it comes close) to the excellence of either of those films - again, as far as moi is concerned - it is probably the likeliest of his films to date to get some serious Oscar ground, especially as regards its star, George Clooney.

The Descendants

You know the basic story if you've seen the trailer. George Clooney plays Matt King, a lawyer in Hawaii, and Matt's wife Elizabeth is in a coma after a boating accident. Oh yeah, and she was also cheating on him - a fact he doesn't learn until after it's too late to confront her about it. I don't think it's much of a spoiler to tell you this, because we learn it very early on - Elizabeth is not going to come out of her coma, and according to the instructions set down in her will, the doctors can only care for her in that state for a short while. So it's time for Matt to get in touch with family and friends and begin a long and painful goodbye. And the knowledge that she'd been having an affair makes it all the more excruciating. Add into this mix Matt and Elizabeth's two daughters, 17 year old Alex and 10 year old Scottie. Alex, played by the remarkable Shailene Woodley, is a wild child, frequently indulging in booze and older men, but she's actually surprisingly pulled together considering all this. Scottie is out of control in her own way, often getting into trouble for her smart (and occasionally foul) mouth.

Matt is, at first glance, the stereotypical "too busy to emotionally connect" male, but Clooney's portrayal and the writing of the character win you over very quickly. I particularly love his line about thinking a parent with means should give their children enough money to do something, but not enough for them to do nothing. This is significant to the B story, because Matt is the trustee for his family's ancestral land (his family's line traces back to Kamehameha I, hence the movie's title) - one of the increasingly few untouched bits of paradise in the state. He's under pressure from not only his family but the entire state of Hawaii to do the right thing with the land. The family wants to sell, because the sale will make them a lot of money and it's an incredibly complicated process to keep the land. Most of the rest of the state think it would unconscionable to sell. The family wants to somewhat compromise by taking the option that, while paying less than other bids, will at least keep the money in Hawaii. But Matt's more immediate family matters understandably overshadow this decision for most of the film.

The movie itself is nothing incredibly new. It reminded me a bit of Terms of Endearment in the way it handled family comedy/drama and hospital bedside tragedy. It doesn't weave the comedy and drama together as successfully as it might have. In fact, it feels like the second act is almost a different movie entirely, bringing the levity that the first and third acts make necessary. The movie has some really extraordinary moments of emotional frankness. That's partly the writing - I especially love the moment where Matt has an extended scene of yelling and cursing at his comatose wife for her infidelity before chastising his daughter for doing the same thing later. But where the movie really shines is in the superb performances, pretty much across the board.

Shailene Woodley is fantastic as the older daughter, Alex. Her reaction to hearing the news about her mother is absolutely heart-shattering and her chemistry with her screen dad, Clooney, makes some of the movie's greatest moments. Amara Miller, as Scottie, is your typical movie kid for a lot of the film, but she gets some great moments, especially toward the end. I don't think I need to tell those of you who know me well how much the whole situation of most of this movie affected me, and I don't think any moment in this movie broke me more than when they break the news to Scottie, much later in the film. Judy Greer, I'm glad to see, has finally broken out of the "quirky/evil best friend in a rom-com" hell and gotten to do some great things lately, and her role as the wife of the Other Man is really wonderful, especially her final scene. Beau Bridges plays a character that MUST have been a straight-up homage to his brother's most memorable character, The Dude. And Robert Forster is rather amazing in the couple of scenes he's in, playing Matt's father-in-law. And I kind of loved Nick Krause as Alex's hilarious stoner boyfriend. He brought humor where it was desperately needed, but even he has a serious side.

But the star of the show, and not just in billing terms, is George Clooney. I was intrigued before seeing this by the idea of him playing a husband and father, as Clooney has eschewed anything resembling that lifestyle in his own personal life. This is the kind of character you've seen dozens of actors play in other movies. Another director, fifteen years ago, would have cast Tom Hanks. Sixty or seventy years ago, it would have been Jimmy Stewart. It certainly wouldn't have been Clark Cable or Cary Grant, the easiest parallels for Clooney that come to my mind. We've just never seen him play this kind of character. He's not the warmest or most successful of fathers in the beginning, but there's a real connection with his kids and a desire to do what his wife would have wanted, even though she doesn't particularly deserve it except in a "she's dying, cut her some slack" kind of way, that makes him a sort of hero over the course of the movie. And when he makes his big decision at the end of the film, and there are people who object strongly (and with a lot of passive aggression, I might add), I wanted to badly to jump into the screen and tell them to [BADWORD] off, because in that two hours of storytelling, this character gained my trust and I felt that whatever decision he made, after the journey he'd been on, was going to be the right one.

It's not perfect, but I loved loved loved this movie. I'm not sure I could see it again soon, because hoo boy is it emotional, but I highly recommend it. It's rated R, but it's barely an R (for language and, I'm almost positive, nothing else). It's getting serious buzz as an Oscar frontrunner, but I have a feeling that may disappear next week when The Artist steals everyone's hearts.

No comments:

Post a Comment