While Hawaiian property magnate Matt King (Clooney) is overseeing the sale of his family’s last parcel of land, his wife is rendered comatose in a jet ski accident. Now the distant father must become a single parent to his troublesome daughters (Woodley, Miller), as well as deal with a devastating revelation.
The funny thing about Alexander Payne’s stories — all of them comedies — is that they’re not funny. About Schmidt: a bereaved old man travels across America to stop his daughter’s wedding. Election: a frustrated high-school teacher tries to confound a high-achieving pupil’s political ambitions. Sideways: two men go away for a stag weekend; the stag philanders while the best man finds love. Yet, in Payne’s hands they are ripe with humour. Surprising, sometimes shocking, laugh-barking humour. It’s not so much that Payne has a talent for finding comedy in the most unlikely places. More that he has a talent for mining the truth that we all find comedy in the most unlikely places.
So it proves with The Descendants, an entry in the Payne canon which deserves to sit close to his career-thus-far high of Sideways. The synopsis above doesn’t exactly sound guffaw-a-minute. Late-midlife crisis; dysfunctional progeny; controversial real-estate sale; wife in coma. It sounds like something more designed to get unstimulated homemakers weepie over a lunchtime gin. Actually, despite the presence of a classic-Payne ‘doofus’ character (Nick Krause’s obtuse teenager Sid) and a few glorious displays of physical comedy (a sudden cold-cock; George Clooney’s hilarious running), there are fewer big laughs to be found here than in Payne’s previous films. But that’s no weakness. It’s arguably his most complex work yet, one which should benefit from repeat viewings.
Perhaps, that’s a result of its idiosyncratic genesis, which makes it
a layer cake of outsider perspectives. The novel, a first-person narrative from the fiftyish Matt King’s POV, was written by Kaui Hart Hemmings, a thirtysomething woman. The film, which like the book is set in Hawaii, was made by a guy from Omaha, Nebraska, whose work has never previously left the American mainland. And the main character, a family man and faithful but arguably dull husband, is played by George Clooney.
Clooney played to his public image in his last ‘Best Actor Nominee’ role, for Jason Reitman’s Up In The Air. Here he dumps it entirely. Matt King is a role that could just as easily have worked with Paul Giamatti, William H. Macy or Bryan Cranston. He is narrator as well as main character, and Clooney, a man well used to reclining on the shores of Lake Como, has no difficulty convincing us that when he says during the opening voiceover that “paradise can go fuck itself”, he really does mean it. We’re not seeing the glamour rechannelled here — we’re seeing the actor, wrinkles and all.
Clooney’s greatly assisted by the supporting cast — from bit-parters Beau Bridges (as Matt’s deceptively laidback cousin) and Matthew Lillard (as a shit-grinned rival), to the actresses who play his daughters. Shailene Woodley and newcomer Amara Miller are perfect as Matt’s 17- and ten year-old offspring respectively, each revealing depths beneath the ‘rebellious teen’ and ‘precocious brat’ archetypes. Woodley comes surprisingly close to snatching the film away from Clooney, and not just because it’s her character who ultimately drives the plot. “Did you just spank me?” she hisses at Matt after he ineptly attempts discipline. Her reaction is on-the-nose: somewhere between disbelief, outrage and amusement. It’s an exquisite moment.
Of which there are many in The Descendants, a film which thrives on its perceptive and vibrant script (co-written by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash). Not only does it zing resonantly — “In Hawaii some of the most powerful people look like bums and stuntmen” — it also deftly ducks the easy options, cutting away, for example, from Matt’s ‘big speech’ scene before the speech; we already know what he’s going to say, so why bother? There are few filmmakers out there as incisively and entertainingly intelligent as Alexander Payne, and he makes few films. So, like Sideways before it, The Descendants is something to be cherished.
A marvellous follow-up to 2004’s Sideways — well worth the wait.