Alexander Payne is the much-loved director behind About Schmidt and Sideways, a far from prolific director who has earned the good will and patience of cinema fans thanks to his excellent work with the comedy and drama genres. His latest film, the descendants, continues to carry his good name into the new decade. Based on the Kaui Hart Hemmings novel of the same name, the descendants stars George Clooney stars as Matt King, head of the King family who inherited a huge amount of valuable land of the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Between his law practice and the sale of this land Matt is already under an immense amount of pressure. That is only half the story; Matt now has to deal with the emotional fallout of his wife having a boating accident and now lying in a coma. As one would expect, he is having a hard time keeping his head above water and do the right thing.
In comparison to Payne’s earlier work, The Descendants is a much gentler watch. The cynicism that defined Sideways is still present; however, instead of being the defining tonal feature it is used to express the irritation Clooney’s character has with the idea that the Hawaiian lifestyle is something immune to life because of the natural beauty of the islands. This cynicism is delivered via the medium of narration, which set the film up poorly. Narration should only be used as when necessary, not a means of establishing a character. It soon picks up the pace to become something remarkable.
Not only is the films spirit more gentle than anything its director has ever been responsible for, it is also sentimental. Sentimentality is an awkward ground for filmmakers to tread, be too heavy-handed with it and it suffocates the film, be too gentle and it’ll go unnoticed. The Descendants has that balance just right, a great deal of this success comes from establishing this world as somewhere that feels real, lived in. These people functioned before the story was told and it will continue after the closing credits have rolled.
The perspective which Hawaii is framed with helps this a great deal, it is a paradise there can be no doubting that, but in presenting it as a living breathing place and not a holiday resort. Unsurprisingly the photography is stunning, even the least talented cinematographers in the business couldn’t fail to make the film look absolutely stunning, so with someone who knows what they are doing, the look of the film will naturally be awe-inspiring. The sound is also worthy of note, in isolation the lilting Hawaii melodies are of niche interest, with the ravishing visuals it makes for a near perfect marriage of sound and image.
There are two stories to be told, here, one of which holds supreme importance other the other. The main narrative is of Matt dealing with the consequences of his wife being in a coma and certain revelations about her personal life. The sub-narrative thread is where the title comes from, follows briefly the deal to sell off the property rights to acres of prime land on Kauai. The latter of which is dropped almost entirely until the final third when it is concluded in an admirable if unsatisfactory way. The demeanour of certain characters feels like a forced resolution, thankfully it doesn’t come close to ruining what came before.
Likewise, the story of Matt dealing with his family being substituted from back-up parent to front and centre almost feels predictable. On second thoughts, predictable isn’t an exact word to describe Matt’s growth. The ‘emotional journey’ is nothing out of the ordinary, done before in countless films like it, yet it’s the characters, the world that makes it feel more than the sum of its parts. That may read like a derogatory comment, which couldn’t be further from the truth, the journey these characters go on its engrossing, funny and on the occasional instance heart-breaking. Kudos goes to Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash for their excellent script.
Even the most excellent script is nothing without the acting talent to unleash the potential. George Clooney may have his fair share of naysayers who believe he is limited to playing himself, which is valid, he has never been better than he is in the descendants, giving life to a man struggling under a huge weight. The emotional depth that he brings carries the movie, the little ticks are all thoughtful and considered – it’s hugely impressive. The rest of the ensemble is also impressive, Shailene Woodley as his elder daughter Alexandra, Nick Krause as the seemingly moronic Sid, Beau Bridges, Matthew Lilliard, and the list goes on.
If it takes Alexander Payne five years to come out with a film this good, he can all the time in the world. Its soft, gentle and lacking that edge, there are also problems with the script. For it to feel vital and significant for all of these flaws makes it a unique and thoroughly deserving its praise in a cinematic epoch lacking stand out titles.