‘My friends on the mainland think that just because I live in Hawaii, I live in paradise‘. These despondent words are what greet the audience of Alexander Payne’s first film in seven years. For many Hawaii is an idillic, getaway location, for Matt King (Clooney) it’s quite the opposite: it’s the place where his wife suffered a severe boating accident and is now comatose. Consequently he must reconnect with his distant teenage daughters and confront the mistakes he made both as a father and a husband. He’s at a point in his life where he feels stranded and as he so bluntly puts it ‘paradise can go fuck itself‘.
With subject matter that’s as seemingly joyless as this Payne does an admirable job, both as a director and a writer, of bringing us into Matt’s world in a way that’s never clunky or heavy-handed. The Descendants is certainly comparable to Sideways both stylistically and thematically. It’s a comedy that’s gently funny and a drama that’s understated. Tonally it’s much less cynical than its predecessor (probably due to the absence of Paul Giamatti) and its appeal is perhaps more universal which might explain the attention and acclaim it’s received.
More than anything, what we have on display here is a showcase of pure acting talent and it’s the beautifully realised performances that make the film such a charming spectacle. Clooney is proving to be a more reliable and diverse actor with every role he chooses and as Matt King he’s arguably at his career peak. Over the years the man has built up a reputation of exuding suave charisma but here he plays a broken and disheveled soul and he does so with aplomb. Matt is an anti-hero in every sense of the word. He refers to himself as the ‘backup parent’, lets his daughters trample all over him and would rather spy on his enemies from the front seat of a car or over a hedge than confront them in person. He’s a frustrating combination of sympathetic and plain pathetic and at times we just want to throttle him and command him to man-up. Luckily these urges are channeled through his eldest daughter Alexandra, played by the incredibly promising Shailene Woodley. In a way Alexandra is Matt’s other half and what he lacks she more than compensates for. But like her father she’s far from perfect and behind her confident facade is a fragile person who chooses to scream underwater rather than show her true emotions. As her multi-faceted character develops we begin to notice echoes of her own mother which makes for a wholly satisfying dynamic.
The ensemble is terrific and the relationships between the characters, especially Matt and Alexandra, are full of tenderness. The only weak link is Sid (Nick Krause), Alexandra’s blank canvas of a boyfriend. He seems like the writers’ attempt at bringing some broader humour into the mix but his character serves no purpose than to deliver some cheap stoner gags that miss the mark due to a one-note performance from Krause. There is one scene in particular where the writers entitle him to a brief period of character development which marginally redeems him but I can’t help thinking the film would have functioned just as well, if not better, without him.
Although I have mostly positive things to say about The Descendants, what it ultimately amounts to is something fairly unremarkable. It’s a familiar and simple story about family issues that’s delicately told with a razor-sharp script and performances that are almost all pitch-perfect. I’m pleased a Best Picture award can go to a film that’s this sincere but equally surprised that it can go to one so slight.