Last night I got to enjoy an incredibly satisfying film: The Descendants, by Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Sideways, Paris, Je T’aime)
For those unaware of this film’s premise: George Clooney plays Matt King, a lawyer and life-long Hawaii resident, whose roots trace back to a marriage between white settlers and the daughter of King Kamehameha, and have left him in control of a lot of land across the island nation. Matt describes himself as the “back-up parent” to Elizabeth, who we see in a coma from the start of the movie after a boating accident that punctuates a long life of thrills and excess, which took a toll on her marriage with Matt. Matt is left to raise two troubled daughters, Alex, age 17 and Scottie, age 10. The film focuses on a few-week window of time when a deal for his family’s last remaining pristine land parcel and Elizabeth’s deteriorating condition both come to a head, and how Matt and his two daughters cope with the situations after being somewhat detached.
Clooney is the primary name on this film, but the other leads take what they are given and run with it. Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller have excellent performances here as the two daughters, and character actors abound with appearances by Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard and Nick Krause, who plays the alternately annoying and later endearing Sid, Alex’s semi-live-in male companion.
I remarked to my companion that there were aspects of The Descendents that reminded me of a Wes Anderson movie, but with a decidedly less quirky tone. Catching my drift immediately, she quickly responded “It’s Wes Anderson movie that’s not being quirky for the sake of it.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Anderson’s films all deal with family situations as complex, unsavory and inherently offbeat as the one seen in The Descendents, but I feel his films have been uneven when it comes to deciding if the quirk or the plot should be the real attraction. The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic leave me lukewarm to this day; however, I find The Darjeeling Limited (though some consider the film to be less rich and therefore a minor work) to strike the perfect balance.
Yes, The Descendents has some offbeat moments, but at its core is a serious movie. The comic moments are less punchlines than they are thin layers of varnish spread across the meaty points of angst and grief, hitting at just the right times.
Which brings me to my favorite scene in the movie, the game-changer for the film. Matt and Sid maintain an adversarial relationship until partway into the second act of the film, when a late-night talk between the two of them changes their perceptions of each other. For me, this scene changes the game for the movie, especially for Matt’s character. I won’t spoil it more than that, but Matt flips from “things affecting me” to “I will affect things” and the film moves toward its eventual, touching (if slightly open-ended) concluding shot.
I’ve been impressed with this year’s holiday batch of films thus far: The Muppets, Hugo (a must-see in 3D), plus anxiously awaiting The Adventures of Tintin. The Descendants is this year’s “Up In The Air”, and not just because it is another highly-enjoyable Clooney film. The themes of family, legacy and what exactly death can upend in the lives of those left behind to grieve are universal, so everyone can take something from this film.
Despite the premise, it’s not a sobfest. Bring a tissue or two just in case. Save the rest of the box for War Horse!