The journey from self-absorption to self-awareness is one often taken by protagonists in Alexander Payne’s films. The dour leading men depicted in his previous films Election, About Schmidt and Sideways have to stop dwelling on the mundane in order to realize their greater significance. Their mission throughout their respective films is to gain control over circumstances that seem beyond reach.
A variation on this arc is presented in Payne’s latest directorial effort The Descendants. The fastidious Matt King (George Clooney) is Payne’s first protagonist to come from a place of economic privilege and with it comes a sense of personal maturity that we have not seen before in a Payne leading man. Matt may not have the ability to handle all of the curve balls that are continually thrown at him, but he is certainly willing to try.
The Descendants is the fifth feature as writer/director for Payne and it is the first time his script is not co-written with longtime writing partner Jim Taylor, with Taylor taking a producing credit on the film instead. Despite a few thematic departures for the immensely talented director, the film maintains his recognizable stamp. It is rich with humanity, incredibly intimate, and fully willing to embrace the flaws of humankind. It is also bitterly funny and provides laughs that never feel guilt-free. It may be the most flawed of Payne’s films, but it still is a wonderful humanist examination into the hypocrisy that we all experience.
In opening voice over we learn that Matt King is descended from Hawaiian royalty and as a result his family owns an enormous trust of land in a beautiful, remote area of one of the islands. Circumstances have made it so that Matt is the sole trustee and the final decision maker about what to do with the land. With this going on, Matt’s wife gets in a terrible boating accident and at the beginning of the narrative is in a coma. A doctor informs him that there is essentially no hope so he decides to gather his daughters and pass on the news to his friends and family.
Matt and his 10-year old daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), island hop to pick up his 17-year old daughter, Alex (Shailene Woodley). In voiceover Matt describes himself as the “back-up parent, the understudy,” and that becomes quickly relevant in his exchanges with his older daughter Alex, who does not respect his authority and callously reveals that Matt’s wife had been having an affair. The new mission becomes to find his wife’s lover and confront him, although Matt has no plans for what to do should that day come. To further aggravate him, Alex demands that she bring along her stoner friend Sid (Nick Krause) who has not filter and blatantly laughs at Matt’s Alzheimer-stricken mother-in-law.
In typical Alexander Payne fashion he does not let moments that might be too heavy land and he often undercuts them with humor. The wonderful supporting turns from the likes of Beau Bridges and the numerous non-actors (who add a nice touch of realism) prevent the film from ever getting too serious despite the enormous stakes. Matthew Lillard and George Clooney have a fantastic confrontation that can never be fully realized as a dramatic moment because of their circumstances. Payne directs scenes like this with laser-like precision to balance the comedy and pathos as delicately as if they were an aged bottle of Pinot Noir.
The film is really about the hypocrisy present in life and most blatantly realized when circumstances are dire. Matt asks for a moment alone with his wife to take out his anger by screaming at her lifeless body. Minutes later his daughter enters to do the exact same thing and he stops her. To justify their decision, the King family is going to sell their slice of paradise to a Hawaiian investor to be turned into a resort. Matt acts as a proxy for the audience to realize the personal and community impacts of this hypocrisy.
Alexander Payne has often been accused of condescending to his characters and that might be evident in the portrayal of the increasingly annoying Sid. After he makes a few idiotic comments that land with some laughs, we are left wondering why Matt and the obviously intelligent Alex allow Sid to stay around. It seems he only remains for a convenient conversation with Matt that feels forced and less than authentic.
George Clooney will undoubtedly earn an Oscar nomination for his deeply felt performance as Matt King. It’s Clooney’s best work since Michael Clayton. His impeccable timing and ability to escape the external setting into his own head is enchanting. The other standout is Shailene Woodley, who brings a remarkable realism and an age appropriate maturity to her character. Her power struggle with Clooney is one of the most fascinating aspects of the film.
Bottom Line: The Descendants is another bitterly funny case study of a man trying to regain control from director Alexander Payne.