George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Michael Ontkean, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer
Alexander Payne, Jim Rash, Nat Faxon, Kaui Hart Hemmings (Novel)
The name Alexander Payne has become synonymous with another name - Oscar.
Payne has joined an exclusive club of directors whose very mention of a new project elicits a chorus of high expectations and Academy Award considerations. Let's face it. The guy's earned it. Films such as Election, Sideways and About Schmidt have cemented Payne's reputation for being able to weave together heart, humor, humanity and, at times, rather stark drama with consistently excellent results.
So, here we come to Payne's latest film, The Descendants... Or, as I prefer to call it "Oscar Bait 2011." The Descendants has everything we've come to expect from an Alexander Payne film including a fundamental crisis, a central conflicted character, supporting characters who are often more intriguing than the lead character and, finally, a wealth of humor-tinged humanity that is woven throughout the film.
Matt King (George Clooney) is a highly successful lawyer with an attractive and popular wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), and a pending real estate deal from a long ago established family trust that will make he and several members of his family incredibly wealthy. Matt is the self-described "back-up parent," a man described by his wife as emotionally unavailable and generally distracted by his workaholic tendencies. All of this changes when Elizabeth is severely injured during a boating race and Matt is forced to reconnect with his two daughters, 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley, The Secret Life of the American Teenager) and 10-year-old Scottie (newcomer Amara Miller).
Were The Descendants to be simply a tale of a father attempting to reconnect with his emotionally and physically lost family, and there's a solid argument that it should have been, the resulting film would have been a compelling if somewhat familiar cinematic experience. However, this is an Alexander Payne film and, as such, there's significantly more going on in the life of Matt King, most notably the revelation he receives from Alex regarding her mother's extramarital affair.
It is actually the affair and not Elizabeth's tragic accident and likely death that fuels the emotional resonance of The Descendants, because it becomes this affair that forces Matt to deal with the father/husband he has been if he has any hope of becoming the father he will need to be for his daughters.
There's been much praise already for Clooney's performance here, and the acclaim is well deserved as Clooney finally drops his usual style over substance shtick and pours some genuine soul into his portrayal of the conflicted, angry and grieving Matt. I'm in no way intending to diss Clooney's acting, but to state with all honesty that Clooney has done what he's done well and has seldom ventured outside his cinematic safety zone of smooth, cocky and confident men. Clooney's Matt King, on the other hand, is still smooth and successful but he's fully graying and self-aware enough that despite his successes he's failed at the things that matter the most - being a husband to Elizabeth and a father to his two daughters. Where Clooney's usual shtick works for the character is that what could have been a hyper-dramatic role instead exudes naturalness and authenticity. There's so much drama in The Descendants, arguably too much, that the potential for melodrama to set in is ever present and, at least a couple times, seen on the horizon. Clooney, however, never allows his own character to go there and Payne does a nice job of maintaining the nice balance between all the characters. While an Oscar win would be a tad disappointing, an Oscar nomination is almost assured for Clooney here.
Shailene Woodley, as angry and rebellious 17-year-old Alex, is also getting quite a bit of buzz for a Supporting Actress nomination, her performance giving the film much of its spark and wit. Woodley has been playing a teenager long enough to know how to play a teenager, so it's not particularly surprising that she fully embodies all the conflicts and dramatics that go along with being at that "almost adult" age. For my money, however, it's newcomer Amara Miller who practically steals the show as 10-year-old Scottie, a young girl who is at times sassy and at times completely and utterly heartbreaking. Watch Miller's entire body shifting as the weight of what's going on begins to set in ... you'll see a "new" actress with incredible instincts embodying a child who is forced to grow up, if only a little, in those very moments.
The other stand-out performance from The Descendants is from veteran actor Robert Forster, who takes a lightly written role as Elizabeth's gruff father and infuses it with layer upon layer of emotional and circumstantial complexity. While Forster isn't on the screen for a significant period of time, anything less than an Supporting Actor Oscar nomination would be a complete injustice.
Despite the film's tremendous performances and terrific camera work by Phedon Papamichael (Of course, how badly can you actually shoot Hawaii?), there's something about The Descendants that constantly feels just a bit off. Payne has always been stellar about creating whacked out, dramatic moments that feel natural and spontaneous. Yet, The Descendants feels incredibly calculated and, while it never dips into melodrama, Payne is rather relentless about creating the drama. Quite literally, every character in the film has a starkly dramatic angle and even without dipping into melodrama it's hard not to feel like Payne is more interested in selling the drama than in building authenticity. At one point, it felt like every scene being watched was an "audition" with each character having tremendous moments of drama, revelation and insight but few that radiated actual humanity. The exception would likely be Shailene Woodley's Alex, who has a couple of incredible gentle, easygoing scenes with her father where you sit there going "Why couldn't more of the film felt like that?"
It seems almost pre-destined that The Descendants will be one of this year's Best Picture nominees, given that Hollywood and film critics nationwide have already pronounced themselves awestruck by Clooney's performance and gosh darn determined to proclaim the film one of the year's finest.
The Descendants is a good film with a great performance by Clooney and others in the cast. The Descendants is worthy of praise and it would be too strong to even call the film a "lesser" Payne film. It's not a "lesser" film, but simply a good film from a great writer/director who, in baseball lingo, hit a triple instead of his usual home run.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic