“Paradise can go fuck itself.”
The H-Bomb: Lately, the life of Hawaiian lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) has been looking a lot like a tsunami. He’s being pressured by his many cousins to sign off on a deal to sell a large chunk of land on Kauai, land they all inherited from their ancestors. The deal would make millions for all of them, but would also lead to the destruction of this beautiful land to make way for condos and resorts.
In addition to that, Matt also has to contend with his two daughters; ten year old Scottie (Amara Miller), who has been making waves with her photography and certain comments about female puberty, and seventeen year old Alex (Shailene Woodley), a prototypical wild child who is off at a reform school for boozing, drugs, and boys. Matt has never really been that comfortable in his role as a father, and thinks of himself as being “the understudy… the back-up parent.”
But where is his wife? Well, that is probably the most destabilizing factor in Matt’s life right now. His wife was involved in a boating accident that has left her in a coma. And even though Matt has been holding out hope while holding her hand and cleaning out her bedpan, one day her doctor sits him down to deliver the bad news, that her condition has worsened and she won’t be waking up.
Now Matt has to figure out how to break the news of his wife’s imminent death to all of their friends and family, including his two daughters and his temperamental father-in-law, Scott (Robert Forester). The older daughter, Alex, has been estranged from her mother for a few months, and when Matt finally confronts her about it, she reveals a secret about her mother that hits him like an A-Bomb. Something that will forever affect the way Matt feels about his dying wife. I won’t give away what it is, though the trailer already did so for me, as did some of the Oscar clips.
It’s this revelation that sends Matt on a journey, both an actual physical journey to discover the truth about his wife, and an internal one, in which he reflects on his own life as a husband and a father, and how he could have done a better job at being both.
The Descendants is the latest dramedy from Alexander Payne, the director who also brought us such bitter-sweet films as About Schmidt and Sideways. I happen to be an enormous fan of Sideways. It was actually my favorite film of 2004, and I actually had the opportunity to tell Payne so in person when I, by chance, ran into him in Cannes in 2005, mere months after winning the Academy Award for adapting the screenplay for that film. (H-Man Aside: He couldn’t have been nicer)
He has now taken home his second Oscar for co-writing the script for this one, based on a book by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Like with Sideways, the award was richly deserved, but is The Descendants as good as Sideways? Not quite. It’s about as close to it as I could’ve expected it to be, but being a struggling writer myself, I was able to relate to the protagonist of Sideways more, and, for me, it‘s just a funnier movie. With The Descendants, Payne has toned down the scathing humor in an attempt to tell a more sincere story. That’s not to say it isn’t there, since, as usual, Payne finds ways of finding amusement in otherwise serious situations; like the dumbass kid making fun of Matt’s senile mother-in-law, or Matt giving his seventeen year old daughter a spanking in his wife’s hospital room. The film is laced with this kind of muted humor, placed in just the right spots, to keep the drama from turning it into a Lifetime movie of the week.
Like with his previous films, Payne gives us characters who feel like people plucked right out of real life. This isn’t the tourist view of Hawaii, though there is some lovely Hawaiian scenery on display, this is Hawaii from the people who actually live there. As Matt lays out in his opening narration, just because they live in “paradise” doesn’t mean there lives are just one long vacation, they still have to work, pay taxes, and die, just like the rest of us. Payne has a talent for making us care about flawed, but fundamentally, good people, and here he has worked his magic again. At the beginning, I wasn’t liking any of these characters, but they change subtly through the story, and by the end, I found myself actually moved by what they had been through.
Another thing Payne has a talent for is casting the perfect actors from top to bottom. Everyone, from Clooney all the way down to Beau Bridges and his little bit, is just fantastic. Twin Peaks fans will have fun spotting Michael Ontkean as one of Matt’s cousins, and Matthew Lillard turns up in a crucial role as a man who has both business and personal ties to Matt. Holy shit, I didn’t even know that guy was still alive!
All kidding aside, Clooney is really at his best as this Hawaiian “everyman,” and I’m going to go ahead and say it, he should have won the Best Actor Oscar for this. As good as Jean Dujardin was in The Artist, I feel Clooney’s performance was the better of the two. Woodley, who I’ve never seen before, was just a revelation as Matt’s older daughter Alex. At the start, she’s a shallow, self-absorbed bitch, but once her father delivers the news about her mother, there’s a great moment where she instantly turns into an actual human being. Miller is also excellent as the younger daughter who Matt tries to shelter the news about his wife from.
Again, this is a perfect cast in a near perfect film. Why near perfect? Well, it is kind of languidly paced in spots, which will have the A.D.D. crowd picking their butts and crying boredom, and the characters, though ultimately sympathetic, are a little off-putting when we first meet them. But those minors things aside, I don’t think I’m overstating anything when I say The Descendents is another masterpiece of suburban dysfunction from Payne. It’s a film that’s both heartfelt and hilarious, and one that everybody should see.