Alexander Payne, returning to the big screen for the first time since Sideways seven years ago, has made a film even more intensely rooted in place than anything he's done before. And it's a film full of geniality and wisdom; funny, unpredictable, and sui generis -- while seeming on the surface remarkably like mainstream entertainment. The source is a novel by a young Hawaiian-born women, Kaui Hart Hemmings, who narrates from the point of view of a middle-aged man, Matt King (George Clooney), who comes from Hawaiian royalty, literally, but is hapa haole -- his family is a mixture of white (haole) and native Hawaiian. On the Hawaiian side, they are directly descended from King Kamehameha. And with that comes land and wealth. Matt is principal trustee of a particularly important property, 25,000 acres of unspoiled land on Kauai that the family is planning to sell.
But there are other threads in the story; Matt has a lot on his plate. Before even the titles comes a shot of his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) on a speedboat. She is in an accident in that boat and hits her head. She is lying in a hospital in a coma. Suddenly Matt, a lawyer in an office all the time managing property, escaping from everyday responsibility, must take charge of two unruly daughters, ten and 17. And shortly he must make the hardest decision of all, to follow his wife's wishes when it turns out she won't emerge from the coma. The property sale decision is looming. And then, a secret comes out about his wife that preoccupies all three of them.
The Descendants shows a new side to George Clooney, the arch charmer and megastar, a softer, more rumpled side, as his Matt approaches being a parent with his teenage daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), who's had a drinking problem and been shifted from one posh school to another. After he picks her up they're joined by her friend and support, young Sid (Nick Krause), an outspoken stoner type who seems like a dope but is smart, and is the vice president of the chess club of the Punahou School. Sid exemplifies the complexity of the film's main characters. He is far more than he first appears. At home the young daughter Scottie (Amara Miller), has started to act out and to use foul language she's picked up from Alex.
Matt seems helpless at this point, not so much overwhelmed by decisions as the victim of decisions made for him. His wife's living will requires him to pull the plug on her once the doctors determine that after three weeks she has no potential life signs. Matt is the trustee with the crucial vote on the property sale, but a family majority has already voted to sell. It's not that Matt is particularly cowardly or weak, simply that his wife, a party girl who bucked him every step of the way, was also always the live wire, the provocative, energetic, take-charge one, not him. But the journey of the film leads Matt, with a little help from friends and family, to take charge, and in incredibly specific ways.
Also incredibly specific at all times, but subtly so, is the film's milieu, Hawaii, with its traditions, its almost oppressive beauty, its strong family structure and sense of identity and lineage, and the mockery of its facade of perfection when it's got the same damned problems the rest of the world has. It's an ironic place to be for Matt with all that's going on. "Paradise can go fuck itself" he says, in an early voiceover. There is nothing touristic or pretty-pretty about Payne's Hawaii. And as the sense of place is sophisticated and informed, so the contemporary social observation as revealed in the dialogue is exceptionally keen: you could call that the sense of time. Also part of the sense of place is the array of family members, notably Matt's surly father-in-law (Robert Forster), who socks Sid for laughing at his senile wife; and the jovial long-haired cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), who reveals astonishing information at a bar.
The voyage (as in Sideways and About Schmidt there is one, or are several) is toward unearthing information, and then deciding what to do about it, and toward mensch status for Matt. Characters turn out to be more than they seem. Alex emerges as sharp and savvy. The dumbo Sid turns out to be someone Matt is not stupid to ask serious advice from.
The Descendants is deceptive. One can't do justice to it in a short review -- besides which it contains plot elements that can't be spoken of to readers who may not yet have seen the film. It seems genial and mainstream, but it works on multiple levels. It appears jokey and entertaining, but it deals with some of the toughest of life's issues. It might seem an unnecessary choice for the selective main slate of the New York Film Festival, except that it turns out to be one of the best American films of the year, and the first for some time from a director whose two previous works were main slate items too.
The Descendants debuted at Teluride, then Toronto, then the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, where it was screened for this review. It will be released by Fox Searchlight Pictures in the US November 18, 2011; the UK release date is January 27, 2012.
©2011 Chris Knipp
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