Alexander Payne’s continuing attempts to pick apart the minutae of middle aged men coping with crisis shows no sign of abating with his (and Nat Faxon’s) adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemming’s book The Descendants. Hemming’s Hawaiian set novel concerns Matt King, a lawyer on Oahu, whose wife has a jetski accident and falls into a coma, Matt then finds out his wife was conducting an affair behind his back and was planning to leave him. Matt then tries to confront his wife’s lover’s whilst discovering he knows very little about either of his daughters.
Trouble in paradise and using death as a solid ground for comedy are nothing new but in the hands of a storyteller as skillful and careful as Payne their usefulnesss is plain to see. Gags (mainly with swear words) are underlined with sadness and each uncomfortable situation that is mined for laughs has death and loss palpably present. The balmy backgrounds, endless beaches and floral shirts offset the grim conversation matter, reminding us again and again that happiness is neither given out freely nor guaranteed forever.
George Clooney plays Matt King well and plays him straight. No O Brother mugging comedy or slapstick, just careful delivery and quiet exasperation. Clooney is the closest thing we have to a real, say it in lights, movie star these days. Ultra famous but not too well known. His villa in Italy keeps us from knowing everything and maintains a relative air of mystery about him. Compared to the things we know about a Cruise or a Gibson, Clooney is a modern enigma. He operates on a one for them, one for him deal with the studios (this may be both) that lends him a certain integrity, coffee adverts aside. His easy charm, warm smile and seemingly affable nature means he’s able to flit from Cary Grant (lite) to James Stewart (lite) whilst remaining very much his own actor, both cunningly retro and perfect for his time. Clooney deserves his Academy nomination, his two scenes alone with his unconcious wife are particularly well crafted performance wise, but he’s been this good before and will be again.
Among an adroitly assembled supporting cast, Shailene Woodley stands out. Her role as King’s troubled, older daughter is a familiar stock character but Woodley puts all the necessary legwork in to produce a performance that’s pitched perfectly between immaturity and maturity. Street smart yet vulnerable, outspoken without the self confidence to back it up, the turmoil of both growing up and coping with her mother’s coma are plainly visible behind a tough, laddish facade.
This is business as usual for Payne, a fine director who’s completed his fourth film and given us very little to complain about in any of them. His pictures are littered with moments that are so familiar they become funny, so real that they sit on the edges of our own lives. Hubris and man’s inability to improve himself come to the fore, well rounded characters and a wistful sense of nostalgia are a must. Payne’s lilting dramas suffuse themselves in a soft focus, almost dreamlike atmosphere that push story to the front, like a (slightly) more modern Hal Ashby. Payne will be doing this for years and that is a very, very good thing.
Perhaps because of the intensity of emotion running throughout The Descendants, the ending feels less punchy than the majority of the film. A pleasing, almost mundane conclusion to an uncomfortably funny, acutely aware family drama that maybe lacks the hug yourself warmth of say, the premier cru, vintage red in a Wendy’s cup ending of Sideways. Sorry, that was churlish.