Watching a film as mature, moving, original and unpredictable as ‘The Descendants’ renews my faith in American movies, and reaffirms Alexander Payne’s status as one of our most gifted storytellers. He has also bestowed the gift of an exceptional role on George Clooney, who gives the best performance of his career.
Clooney can be a charmer, but here he embodies a character devoid of that trait. He’s a successful lawyer in Hawaii who, as he freely admits, has become so consumed by work that he has neglected his wife and two daughters. Fate intervenes when his wife is injured in a water-skiing accident that puts her in a coma. Overnight, he is forced to become a full-time father to his alienated teenage daughter (Shailene Woodley) and her younger sister, who needs to be sheltered from the dire news about her mom. In the midst of this, Clooney also has to make a momentous decision about a huge parcel of virgin land on the island of Kauai that is owned by his large, diverse family.
The challenge in describing the film is that it doesn’t neatly fit into any pigeonhole. It’s a serious movie that happens to have a sense of humor, because Payne and his collaborators see the absurdity in everyday existence. They know that life can turn tragic in the blink of an eye and an encounter between two characters can play out as high drama or be undercut by humor. That’s one of the qualities that distinguishes all of Payne’s movies and makes this one so special. (The screenplay was first developed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from a little-known novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings.)
Hawaii is more than just a backdrop for the story; it is part and parcel of the characters’ lives, which becomes clearer as the story progresses. That’s not to say that there aren’t breathtaking beauty shots peppered throughout the film; they help us understand what this island paradise means to the people who live there full-time and call it home.
Although he’s inevitably described as “director Alexander Payne,” it is his writing, usually in collaboration with Jim Taylor, which helps define the filmmaker’s sensibilities. While he’s not above making fun of his characters (think of the hapless schoolteacher played by Matthew Broderick in ‘Election’, or the often-clueless Jack Nicholson in ‘About Schmidt’) he never trivializes them. There is an unexpectedly funny moment in ‘The Descendants’ in which Clooney, fired up with rage, impulsively runs to a friend’s house…but because he’s wearing flip-flops, the dramatic impetus for the scene is somewhat defused by audience laughter at the sheer incongruity of the moment. That’s Payne in a nutshell.
Clooney’s character isn’t a bad person; he’s imperfect, like most of us, and in the face of some extraordinary challenges, he tries to summon his better self. That’s what I love about ‘The Descendants’: it makes us reflect about how we conduct our lives, and how we might strive to be better.