It’s always a good sign when your biggest negative preconceived notion about a movie is tackled almost immediately in the film itself. For me, I thought it’d be very difficult to take a movie like The Descendants seriously. How can we possibly feel sorry for a George Clooney character who lives in 24/7 paradise? (It’s hard enough to feel sorry for Clooney as it is; the looks, the voice, the hair, etc.)
But if paradise is tending to your comatose wife, your two very obstinate daughters, your horribly destructive father-in-law and dozens of greedy relatives, then we certainly share a different definition of the word.
That, as it is, describes Matt King’s life. His wife, injured in a boating competition, has lain unconscious on a hospital bed for weeks. His 10-year-old daughter, Scottie, is trying to make sense of her mother’s injury (with little help from Matt), while his 17-year-old, Alexandra, is doing the typical 17-year-old thing; the drugs, the booze, the older men, and so on.
Matt, you see, is the back-up parent. The workaholic who let his wife do most of the child raising when she wasn’t drinking, water skiing, motorcycling, or, apparently, sleeping with other men. When Matt gets wind of his wife’s alleged affair, it sends him into a whirlwind of emotion. He’s angry, pleased, vengeful, and, most of all, opportunistic. Finding his wife’s lover is a means for purpose. It gives him, and his daughters, something to do. Passing the time never felt so worthy.
If there’s one thing I’ve always loved about Alexander Payne’s films, it’s that they are written how people talk. The dialogue is often so honest and accurate to everyday conversation, that it can initially be jarring in its approach. You may even find it humorous when it’s not supposed to be. But listen. Listen the next time you and your friends are sitting around talking. Listen to the words you use, the comfortable vernacular and relaxed cadence. Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, and especially his short in Paris Je’Taime, all contain dialogue that is true to life. This may seem like an unusual bit of praise to point out, but from a writer’s perspective, Payne’s method of screenwriting is inexplicably refreshing. (For the record, Payne’s screenplays are usually co-authored by Jim Taylor, but The Descendants cites character actors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash as co-authors).
Now, how about that Clooney? Year after year, film after film, Clooney reaffirms his emotional depth as an actor. The man, quite simply, can do no wrong. When he rarely sidesteps (The Men Who Stare at Goats, Leatherheads), it is easily forgotten among his exceptional body of work. Clooney has two scenes in particular in The Descendants that will land him his sixth Oscar nomination. Both are with his silent, unconscious wife; one is angry, one is heartfelt, both are tender, painful and marvelous.
Special mention needs to be made to Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller, who play Alexandra and Scottie, respectively. I cannot describe how exhilarating it is to watch young characters in movies talk and act like young people. Bullies at school are called whores, their father is often given the middle finger, or told out right to fuck off, and so on. This can again be credited to the film’s screenplay, but Miller and especially Woodley are putting in good work here. (The antithesis of this is, for instance, the child acting in Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo, where the kids speak in clichés and always walk around with canned looks on their faces).
The Descendants, it must be said, is not perfect. It lags mildly toward the end, and its titular subplot, while necessary, arrives at an extremely predictable outcome. These are, mind you, slight quipples that should in no way deter you. The Descendants is a solid, authentic piece of adult, American filmmaking. Expect to hear its name in consideration come awards time. B+