A welcome gift
Alexander Payne’s ‘The Descendants’ offers intelligent entertainment in a season of cinematic silliness
By Carl Kozlowski 12/01/2011
Watching your wife get knocked into an irreversible coma by a freak accident has to be one of life’s most unimaginable horrors. But in “The Descendants,” George Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian real estate mogul who has to deal with the decision to take his wife off life support and come to terms with the surprising fact that she had been cheating on him.
As it follows King on the twin emotional journeys of watching his wife’s friends and family say goodbye to her and of tracking down her boyfriend as a form of closure, the film could have been a depressing chore to watch. But because it is co-written and directed by Alexander Payne, the brilliant filmmaker behind the Oscar-nominated films “About Schmidt” and “Sideways,” “The Descendants” miraculously finds a way to mine laughs as well as tears.
That daring emotional tightrope is made possible through King’s abrupt need to be a hands-on father to two daughters, middle-school student Scottie (Amara Miller in a terrific debut performance) and her older teen sister Alexandra (Shailene Woodley).
Scottie is dealing with the trauma of her mom’s condition by bringing disturbing hospital-room photographs into school for show and tell and texting humorously obscene messages to classmates in addition to throwing lawn furniture into the family pool. Alex, on the other hand, is getting drunk and being verbally abusive while trapped in a teen drug-rehab center.
When Alex reveals her horrible attitude was caused by finding her mom with another man, a smarmy real-estate agent named Brian Speer (played by Pasadena’s own Matthew Lillard) King takes the girls — and Alexandra’s stoner friend Sid — on an abrupt trip to the main island to find Speer, both in order to confront him and offer him a chance to visit Elizabeth before she dies.
It is that sense of humane nobility, forgiveness and understanding that makes Clooney’s portrayal of King so lovable, even as he’s caught in the middle of a big decision on whether to sell his family’s massive coastline property to developers. Whether lashing out in a futile verbal tirade at his wife’s virtual corpse, weeping quietly over the combination of her impending death and her surprising betrayal, or being hilariously bemused by the wave of misfortune that threatens to overwhelm his character, Clooney has never been better.
As his daughters, Miller and Woodley are pitch-perfect as well while handling a similar emotional rollercoaster. But Krause as Sid and veteran Robert Forster as Elizabeth’s father steal the show in their scenes as they lock in verbal and even physical combat over Sid’s clueless and inappropriate comments.
“The Descendants” isn’t flashy or edge-of-your-seat entertainment. But it is a film that respects viewers’ intelligence while gently tugging their heartstrings and providing them with rich emotional rewards.
It has a quiet, low-key charm that perfectly fits the laid-back feel of King’s Hawaiian lifestyle, combining often stunning scenery with native island tunes that help ease the viewer into feeling they are truly living among King and his friends and family. For viewers seeking a film that rings true amid the often false sparkle of the modern holiday season, “The Descendants” is a welcome gift.