Sunday, December 11, 2011
Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Judy Greer, Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard, Robert Forster, Nick Krause, Amara Miller
Running Time: 115 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
It's rare to see a movie as informed by its setting as Alexander Payne's The Descendants. Watching, you get the impression the story couldn't have taken place at all if it didn't take place in Hawaii. The characters wouldn't feel what they feel, do what they do and the entire mood, atmosphere and pacing would seem off. The Hawaii we're presented with here isn't one we've been made aware of before, at least in movies. The opening voiceover even let's us know that much. It's more depressing than exotic, so unlike the vacation destination we've seen on postcards that it doesn't even register as the same place. If only Hawaiian locals only went to the beach all day, rode waves and had drinks with little umbrellas in them like we we've been told they do for years. This is the first time it hasn't been depicted as pure paradise and in doing so Payne fittingly humanizes this film's setting as much his characters, showing real flaws and imperfections that somehow lead to a greater appreciation of both.
While people who live in paradise still have problems, they're hopefully not as big as the ones plaguing real estate lawyer Matt King, played by George Clooney in a dialed down performance sure to net him another Oscar nomination. With his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) laying in a coma after a boating accident, the wealthy lawyer has been entrusted to a large, lucrative piece of land passed down from his ancestors. With the state and his family waiting on pins and needles he must decide as sole trustee whether the family should sell to cash in or hold on to the property. Coming off the bench as the "back-up parent" he has to deal with his two daughters. 10-year-old foul-mouthed Scottie (Amara Miller) is acting out at school and at home while her angry, rebellious 17-year-old sister Alex (Shailene Woodley) returns from boarding school, giving Matt the shocking news that their mom was cheating on him.
Moving at a methodical, appropriately laid-back pace for most of its running time the story really starts finding its rhythm when the big revelation about Elizabeth's infidelity arrives. That's the turning point. From then on the story takes some twists and turns with the land sale figuring into the personal story in a way that's unanticipated without feeling forced. What's interesting is that despite being on life support in a hospital bed the entire and never even being seen in flashback the narrative forces the viewer to form strong feelings about Elizabeth as we watch those closest to her react to the news of her betrayal. It wouldn't be off base to say that the more we learn about her the less we like, to the point I could honestly say I hated her. That's a strange declaration to make when the offender in question is already laying in a coma but that feeling seems to be exactly what Payne is going for since the characters struggle with that as well. Matt is in shock, plagued by the insatiable urge to track down the man she was cheating with, a sleazy island realtor named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard, a long way from Scream). Or rather it's assumed he's sleazy from a single fact and it's kind of funny how it seems we know everything about him before the actual introduction, or want to believe we do.
The quest to find Speer turns the movie into a road trip with Matt, Scottie, Alex and her dim-witted boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), who shoots off wildly inappropriate comments at the worst moments. They have to contend with Matt's grumpy father-in-law Scott (Robert Forster) who blames him for his daughter's accident just as he faces increasing pressure from cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges) and his extended family about the land sale. Anticipation builds for the family's eventual encounter with Speer, a meeting that somehow surpasses expectations. That's when things really get crazy. And I haven't given anything away. It all could have easily played like a soap opera (which it kind of is) but there's a brutal honesty and truthfulness to the scenes that keep it from going into shallow territory. It's a thin line to walk but Payne never crosses it, nor do his actors.
Sad and weary-eyed, wearing old man khakis and flowery shirts, Clooney downplays the movie star charisma he's famous for, just as he did in last year's The American. As a parent completely defeated by life, he brings a depressed vulnerability and hangdog physical presence to Matt we're not used to seeing from the actor. If it's not his best performance, it's sure way up there and will easily net him another Oscar nomination. And if he wins I can't say I'd have a problem with it. For all the jokes about his popularity and "Mr. Hollywood" persona these past few years, he's been taking on more meaningful projects and pushing himself in different directions as an actor, refusing to ever take the quick payday when he very easily could.
If Clooney does win, he can probably give cut the statue at its waist and give half to Shailene Woodley, who rises to the near impossible task of making us not only understand Alex, but see how her actions could actually be justified under the circumstances. Saddled with the film's most emotional scenes, she slowly peels the layers away to reveal Alex is far from just the spoiled brat we'd assume from her initial introduction. Equally strong and vulnerable, she gives a beyond her years performance that never tells the audience what to think or feel and seems in perfect harmony with the script. That she's only been known until now for starring in ABC Family's The Secret Life of The American Teenager, of all things, stands as proof that undiscovered talent can come from anywhere at any time, and all it takes is one performance in the right project.
Lillard's cheating Brian Speer doesn't build up as much disdain as comatose Elizabeth, at least until we meet his wife. Then viewers will want to wring his neck. That's because she's played by Judy Greer. Unarguably the most underrated, instantly recognizable actress working today, she's finally freed here from the shackles of the "best friend" in romantic comedies as she steps up to the plate in a third act dramatic role that isn't necessarily any larger than those those, but ten times more complex. It's difficult to get into without spoilers but you can argue the story doesn't fully register until Greer arrives, going toe-to-toe with Clooney and turning what could have been a cliche of the scorned wife into the character I walked away caring what happened to most. Here's hoping this part helps break her through into the leading lady ranks where she's belonged for a long time. I'd say I wished the entire movie were about her, but it in many ways it actually is. Or rather it's about how sometimes a life situation gets so bad you're left with no choice but to let go, rather than risk the anger completely consuming and destroying you.
It's becoming increasingly difficult going into a movie knowing it's a big awards contender and hearing about Oscars even before seeing the results on screen. While the problem should be that it puts more pressure on the film and sets unreasonable expectations I instead frustratingly find that the opposite is true. These movies almost seem to have an unfair advantage from the start since it's common knowledge that the best films are usually reserved for the final two months of the year. This makes it easier for the movie but a bigger challenge for the critic who has to throw out all that other information out the window strengths and weaknesses.
The Descendants isn't perfect, but it's close. Coming from someone who thinks voiceovers often get a bad rap, I still have done without Clooney's over-explanantory narration since it just doesn't point out anything we can't see for ourselves. Also, a noble attempt to develop the Sid character doesn't seem to register like it should. This is the first film to use exclusively authentic Hawaiian music in lieu of a traditional movie score and it makes a big difference in terms of conveying mood and atmosphere, even if there's this small part of me that wanted one huge music moment. For some reason it seemed like a classic Cat Stevens song would have fit in perfectly. It's just that kind of movie.
It's still unclear how it ranks against Payne's previous efforts like Sideways, Election and About Schmidt but it already feels weightier than those and more substantial. There's something about it's style and approach that stays with you even though the story, with a few surprise exceptions, is fairly universal and basic. Given it's been 7 years since his last film, it's a credit to how skilled he is at telling human, truthful stories that the wait felt even longer than that. In a way this is my favorite type of film: an intimate writer-driven piece interested in exploring real people dealing with actual problems. It sounds like a cliche, but in the right hands it can be the most satisfying form of entertainment because it tends to stick around after you've left the theater. It's easy to see what all the fuss is about since The Descendants is the kind of intelligent adult drama that's increasingly hard to come by.