The Loneliest Island

The Descendants (November 18, 2011)     4.5/5

Directed by Alexander Payne (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Alexander Payne sure knows how to swing emotional curveballs at an audience. In 2004’s Sideways, which many consider to be a modern, comedic classic, he flawlessly executed a film of immense depression, segmented by numerous, hysterical sequences. George Clooney, who gave one his best performances five years later in Up in the Air, somewhat shared the sensibility Payne brings to his films, being charming and confident, but slowly realizing what decisions the immense weight of life must force him to make. The two of them together is a match made in heaven, or more appropriately … Hawaii? Yes, The Descendants is set in American paradise, but the film takes a clear stance that the people who live there have it no better than us. Seems like an equally depressing theme, doesn’t it? This is surely a sad film, but surprisingly, Payne shows some restraint of that infamous, emotional intensity. It is also funny when it wants to be, but Clooney, despite being a character we deeply care for, is no charmer at all. Thus said, The Descendants rarely missteps, and in a film about the flaws that make us human, how could it really?

Matt King (Clooney) is faced with quite a situation. A lawyer based in Honolulu, King is also the trustee of 25,000 acres of pure, Hawaiian land. The trust will expire in seven years, so King, along with his dozen or so family members on the island, must decide whether to sell the land, which will quickly turn into one of those resorts we longingly stare at in magazine ads. Meanwhile, a boating accident has driven Matt’s wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastia), into a coma. And it might not be one she can wake up from. King, being “the back-up parent,” must also care for his two daughters, misbehaving 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and drug-prone 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley). But then, the Payne curveball hits. Alex reveals to her father that Elizabeth was cheating on him. The family then sets out to make whatever  they can of a devastating situation, the lover turning out to be none other than Matthew Lillard. Alex’s dim-witted boyfriend, Sid (Nick Krause), also comes along for the ride. The result is a surprisingly steady tone, never hilarious or heart-wrenching, but consistently comical and deeply affecting, nonetheless.

I may be going out on a limb here, but I think Clooney deserves his second Oscar. The film opens with a substantial amount of Matt King voiceover. This will surely bug people who loathe narration, but it accomplishes its goal by directly placing us within the mind of the protagonist we are meant to connect with. It does explain plot points, but not to the extent that it deprives us of information that we could’ve obtained from the film on our own. For the most part, it offers very beneficial information, and as the film advances, Clooney’s performance takes precedent. The character of Matt King is interesting because he recognizes that he was never the perfect husband. He was distant from his wife, and never there for his children. He understands why his wife cheated on him, but will never have the opportunity to give her what she deserved throughout their marriage. Initially, he feels like the victim, and who could blame him? But then the realization comes – if King hopes to cope, he must forgive her, the man who she may have loved, and himself, as well. It is a daunting task, but with a family to care for, and a big decision to make, life must go on. Even in the place where people go to escape it.

I was impressed by The Descendants‘ knowledge of what clichés it must avoid. There is a scene where the youngest daughter, upon hearing that her older sister and mother would go camping amidst the beautiful, King-owned land, claims that she would like to go camping, too. King has no response. As of yet, the land will be sold, but we now know that King doesn’t want it to be. There is no final scene where the family camps happily upon the ocean front, but from what excellent job Payne has done with connecting us to his characters, the audience knows what longing King has to make this a reality, and how he will try his best to make it a possibility. There are a few moments later in the film, with King alone in the hospital with his wife, that fully solidify Clooney as one of the greatest working actors (if that wasn’t already obvious). In fact, it might be the most moving scene of the year. Clooney’s sadness transcends that of screen acting and becomes as relatable as a performance can be, connecting to anyone who has lost another or been forced into a situation that seemingly has no escape. The tears seem real, because oddly enough, they feel like our own.

The Descendants makes a stance to not be manipulative, but if the film makes any mistake, it is to not build upon the emotional devastation that arises in a few scenes, which are often cut short by comedic relief. But I appreciate how tactfully Payne navigates these choppy waters, conveying the emotion without bludgeoning us with it. Some may argue that the emotions we are meant to feel seem rather obvious and unoriginally executed, but I feel as though Payne negates these arguments simply through the story elements. This is an unbelievably tragic situation, but it is not a film that wants us to grieve. It is one that asks us to recognize our flaws and respect those of others, and when regret, anger, and jealously plague our souls, to simply try our best to live.

Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the film appeals to an odd sort of sensibility. The opening credits appear on a Hawaiian-font titlecard, which feels awfully unnecessary. But then again, the point is to establish an outside look of paradise, and then present us with the universal unhappiness within it. The Hawaiian music also serves to accomplish this goal, as does the beautiful cinematography by Phedon Papamichael. The film was shot mostly in Honolulu, and the use Payne makes of this location is simply outstanding. As for the characters who inhabit it, the result is similar. Shailene Woodley, who starred on ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager, gives a quite terrific performance as King’s eldest daughter. Seriously, she even cries underwater! Amara Miller as the younger daughter is also spectacular for her age, and it was surely quite fun to see Matthew Lillard as the enemy. I also can’t say enough about Nick Krause as Sid, the dopey boyfriend who never ceases to judge, but always makes us laugh. He even makes us sorry for judging him.

These all become characters that envelop us within their lives, an accomplishment Payne ties together with several others. He emphasizes the subtleties of the incredible performance by Clooney, whose journey we follow with the utmost attention and care. There are also great performances by Robert Forster as King’s father-in-law, and Beau Bridges as his cousin, Hugh. But ultimately, this is a film about the building of a family, and people who attempt to bring out the best within themselves in the worst situation imaginable. King did nothing to inherit acre-upon-acre of beautiful Hawaiian land, but somehow it ended up on his doorstep. He also did not ask for what happened to his wife. But sometimes, life throws responsibility upon us, and it is our job to handle it in the best possible way, even though it may seem unfair. Payne therefore wraps a story of paradise within the intangible truths of life. Does that mean you won’t laugh? Not at all. But it may help you understand why you are.

 

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