The Descendants (2011)

Director: Alexander Payne
Writers: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
Composer: Jeff Peterson
Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Robert Forster.

I saw that Alexander Payne’s new movie Downsizing will be coming out soon, I haven’t even seen a trailer for it yet, but I’m pretty sure I’m gonna watch it. I have now seen every single feature film he’s ever directed, and I cannot say that about many directors. There’s something about Payne’s movies that just resonate with me, something that draws me in, he has a sensitivity and a style I truly dig, an ability to mix comedy with very dramatic moments, and yet can keep it all very light, with a heavy dose of irony, and yet still leave you with an optimistic worldview in spite of what the characters have done or gone through. I cannot really put my finger on it, but his films give me the same sort of emotions that reading a Tom Perrotta novel does (Payne did, in fact, adapt the Perrotta novel Election for his second feature). About a month ago I realized there were two movies by the director I had yet to see, and so I decided to fix that. Last months I watched Nebraska, and now it was The Descendants‘ turn.

I must admit, this is my least favorite of all of Payne’s films. That (dis)honor used to belong to About Schmidt, which I found a little stale and slightly boring, but it has now been replaced. That is not to say that The Descendants is terrible, not at all, it simply did not resonate with me as much, and given the very high bar the director has set for himself, it just didn’t reach as high as the others, and perhaps it’s due to the fact that this is the most audience friendly and mass appeal of any of his movies, and that’s not what I look for in an Alexander Payne movie (I am not counting the fact that Payne wrote the screenplay to the dreadful Jurassic Park III, because that should be forgotten by everyone).

The movie is another road trip film for the director (he likes this premise, and used it for Sideways, About Schmidt, and Nebraska) – a family searching for one thing, and finding something different, something unexpected (uh… by the characters), along the way. Set in Hawaii, Matt King’s (George Clooney) is in the hospital in a coma. This leaves the lawyer to become the primary caregiver to the couple’s youngest daughter, a role that does not suit him. Friends drop in to provide meals and support, but mostly it’s Matt trying to rein in his troubled daughter (who only seems to be troubled in the movie premise, then suddenly takes a back seat the rest of the film except to give the finger once or twice). To help him, Matt flies to the big island to collect his other, older, troubled daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley, Big Little Lies) from the private school she attends to help him with her younger sister (again, Alex drinks and supposedly has done drugs when we are introduced to her, but she mostly pouts and has a foul mouth the rest of the film – these “difficult” daughters would be most parents’ dream). Once home, Alex admits to her father why she doesn’t want to see her mother, even though she is about to be taken off life support and will soon die: her mother was having an affair. This sets Matt off, and suddenly he, with kids in tow (great parenting), must find his wife’s lover. (There is a subplot of him being the trustee to his family’s estate, a big decision concerning real estate must happen imminently because… plot reasons, and a coincidence involving the wife’s lover is very convenient to the overall narrative.) Along for the ride is Alex’s friend (paramour?) who only seems to be there because of comedic relief (who buys their daughter’s friend a plane ticket to go find his cheating wife’s lover???). The movie is a bit all over the place. I cannot believe that this screenplay won an Oscar!

Script aside, there are some very good things in this movie. The cinematography is absolutely excellent. Payne’s movies didn’t start off as beautiful, they were quite rough in fact (especially Citizen Ruth), but then with time the director matured, his budgets grew larger, and they became quite pretty. This one does take full advantage of its idyllic paradisiacal setting, making the various islands that form the archipelago quite pretty (which reminds me of the movie intro, that likens said islands to a family: clustered but separated, bleargh!!!). The use of music is also excellent. The score is fine, but the soundtrack is peppered with Hawaiian music, and not stereotypical (there is no Israel Kamakawiwo’ole is sight). The music showcases the diversity of the state’s music, not just ukulele songs, but a broader spectrum of styles and artists – a lovely decision.

The acting is fine, good even, but sometimes over the top. Almost every main character has a scene interacting with the comatose woman, and those scenes all read as fake and way over the top. The more understated and naturalistic ones are those that stand out: Clooney’s Matt realizing he sees his wife’s lover while jogging on the beach, Alex reacting to her mother’s dying by crying underwater to hide her reaction, etc. The film has flaws but is saved by its beauty, music, and some good performances. I am glad that after making this film, Payne returned to his more quirky bizarre aesthetic with Nebraska, it gives me hope for Downsizing. I am such a fan of the director, I just want all his movies to reach the heights of Sideways, his absolute best and, in my opinion, a near perfect film, so I am a bit more harsh on him, but it’s because I am such an admirer of his work. I like that he usually doesn’t fall into cliches, so it’s disappointing to see a film of his absolutely riddled with them.

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