(Dir: Alexander Payne, 2011)
Alexander Payne is one of those directors who appears to be highly reverred within the film community, yet I’ve always struggled to fully appreciate why. I enjoyed Election a lot, appreciated Sideways to a certain extent, but didn't really like About Schmidt. His films seem to focus on reaching a specific point in life, an age based milestone maybe, and seeing how the characters deal with it. Perhaps when watching these films I wasn’t able to properly grasp the portrayed themes of approaching middle age or retirement? Maybe I just wasn’t ready? However, with a few more years perspective gained I think I’m ready to give them another go, and part of the inclination to do so comes from Payne’s latest film, The Descendants.
The Descendants is an interesting and extremely well put together drama about dealing with middle age crises. The crises in question here are, what happens when your wife has an accident and ends up in a coma? How do you then deal with your daughters when you’re the “back-up parent” and how do you cope with a revelation that threatens to break up your marriage? That is what's facing Matt King, superbly played by George Clooney. As ever, Clooney brings his immense likeability and charm to a role that requires him to portray a seemingly normal family man, thrust into a situation that feels far beyond his control. He looks like he has lived this life and there are years etched into his face and in his greying hair. He becomes this character, and with a lightness of touch manages to bring out the requisite pathos. It’s definitely one of the best performances Clooney has given in a career of excellent performances.
Fortunately the acting by both of the daughters also helps to keep the core of the story, the family unit, believable, particularly Shailene Woodley who plays the eldest daughter Alex. There is a subtle complexity to Alex's character that is slowly revealed as the story develops and helps avoid her becoming the usual one note teen cliché. She is accompanied at almost all times by an older boy, Sid, played by Nick Krause, and he essentially provides comic relief. But there is one fantastic scene later on in the film between Sid and Matt that beautifully reveals why he is keen to spend so much time with a family going through so much hell. This was one of my favourite moments in the film.
Much is made of the Hawaiian setting, particularly as the family visit the island of Kauai, which also serves to provide an additional storyline concerning a large amount of land owned by Matt and his cousins. This touches on the issues of whether or not it's right to sell off some of this native land for development, providing welcome food for thought. It's all nicely interwoven into the overall story of the film, giving the opportunity to show more of beautiful Hawaii and offering an interesting diversion from the main story.
I really liked The Descendants - it’s an engaging and mature film that's very well written and beautifully crafted, although I do wonder if it would have been as good without Clooney in the lead role. Maybe I'm a little biased as he is one of my favourite actors, but I really thought he made this role his own. It’s testament to a skillful director that they can take such a potentially depressing story and not get unnecessarily weighed down by the emotional aspects. There is a lot of emotion in the film, but it comes through when it serves the story best. Maybe I wasn’t ready for Payne’s previous films at the time I watched them, but fortunately that wasn't the case with The Descendants.