Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The Descendants

Academy Award Nominations: 5 
  • Best Picture
  • Best Director (Alexander Payne)
  • Best Actor (George Clooney)
  • Best Adapted Screenplay (Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash)
  • Best Film Editing (Kevin Tent)

Matt King is a lawyer based in Hawaii and the sole trustee of a family trust that controls thousands of acres of untouched land, which they are about to sell to a local businessman for redevelopment. However, after an unfortunate boating accident, Matt's wife Elizabeth is left in a coma, forcing him to stop everything and re-assess his life. First priority is looking after his 10 year old daughter Scottie, as well as bringing back his 17 year old wild child daughter Alex from boarding school. When Matt finds out his wife won't recover, he begins the awful task of informing his close family and children. However, Alex has a more surprising revelation: Elizabeth was having an affair, and was on the verge of leaving Matt before the accident. Can Matt and his family cope with everything at once?

Alexander Payne movies are very quickly becoming highly distinctive and templates for fellow American directors: American social critiques with troubled main characters and a provocative supporting cast, where nothing much happens other than the everyday complexity of life itself, told with plenty of dark humour and satire. Before this, Payne wrote and directed Election, About Schmidt and Sideways, three really excellent films that established Payne as a 'force majeure' before he disappeared for 7 years, merely producing a handful of efforts rather than writing and directing. Finally, he's back with The Descendants, starring one of the biggest names in the world. So has he gone Hollywood or was he merely biding his time? Thankfully, it's safe to say he was biding his time, and biding it well.

Almost needless to say, this is another distinctive Alexander Payne film, where there are no major action points, and both plot and story are driven by character and dialogue. It's more a series of mini dramas held together by one leading plot thread, much in the same way his earlier works worked, and the formula hasn't gotten old yet. The Descendants can switch from laugh out loud funny to quietly tense to completely heartbreaking in the blink of an eye, hardly surprising given the subject matter and the range of characters that inhabit this world. It's a really well worked drama with elements of all manner of other genres thrown in for good measure. Payne has most certainly established himself as a great modern day American director, becoming the voice of the disaffected youth who grew up to nothing but disappointment. He lived out the disappointing future of Ferris Bueller in Election with Matthew Broderick, and now he's enlisted George Clooney to deliver a similar performance.

And what a performance it is. George Clooney seems to have only gotten better with age, and in The Descendants he delivers a similar performance to the one he delivered two years ago in Up in the Air, one which was also a perfect portrayal of a highly troubled character struggling to keep everything organised and in order on the surface. He was great in that, and he's great again in this, playing an absentee father, near oblivious to his family until he's forced to confront and control it. In my opinion though, his performance is enhanced by the chemistry he creates with his on-screen daughter Alex, played by Shailene Woodley. Woodley is only 20 years old, playing a 17 year old with a drinking problem and strained relations with both her parents after they ship her off to boarding school, and does so fantastically well. When Alex returns home, she becomes a confidante for Matt and becomes Scottie's surrogate mother in the absence of her real mother. Not only that, but she's the catalyst for the leading plot thread of the wife's affair, she's intrgral to the film's success and Woodley carries it off like a pro. It's a brave and striking performance, one that has gone somewhat unappreciated in the light of Clooney's, but I firmly believe the two of them have made each other better in this by creating a great on-screen relationship with a genuine connection and real chemistry.

Despite how good I've said this film is, I do have a few problems with some of the characters in here. I did say Shailene Woodley played Alex King well, but her character seems fundamentally flawed in that she's supposed to be a wild child, and yet all of that's forgotten by the beginning of the second act, becoming the stand-in adult female lead. It's a shame, because it's seem as if there could have plenty of things to go with down that road, but they drop her defining characteristics and give her new ones so quickly, it seems like a waste. Also, I don't understand the inclusion of the character of Sid at all. Sid is a friend of Alex who tags along with the family as Alex claims he'll "help to keep her calm", but he's completely unnecessary after the first half of the film, as Alex appears to calm herself down and Sid becomes no more than the comic shill, adding laughs which is just far too obvious and unnecessary given the gentle and dark humour already within the script. The supporting cast has problems as well in my opinion. The supporting cast is full of famous faces and names, but their roles are reduced to little more than cameos, which also seems wasteful, especially given the importance of some of these characters. Payne seem so fixated on keeping the focus squarely on Clooney and Woodley, he forgets to give almost anyone else a chance.

All in all though, The Descendants is a great watch, it really is. If you're already a fan of Payne's work, then you'll know what you're getting with this. If you've never seen any of Payne's work, then by all means give this a go, then go and watch Sideways. And Election. And About Schmidt. In that order. It's got some great performances in here, some really sharp and well-written, naturalistic dialogue with plenty of self-depreciating dark humour and genuine emotion coming through. It's funny, it's dark, it's engaging, it's emotional, it's everything you could possibly want in two hours, all with likeable characters and a well-constructed story to boot. The Descendants is so similar to all of Payne's earlier works, and yet different at the same time, and that surely is the mark of a great director: To make something instantly recognisable and yet entirely different, all in one film.

Rating: ****1/2

The Descendants was released on 27th January 2012 and is still being shown in cinemas.