Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ohana Trouble: THE DESCENDANTS


Until now, writer-director Alexander Payne hadn’t made a movie since 2004’s fine comic drama Sideways. (Though his short in the 2007 anthology Paris, Je T’aime was easily the best part of that film). Watching his new film, The Descendents, I realized how much I had missed his cinematic voice. It wasn’t until it was gone that I discovered how much I enjoyed having new work from him appearing every couple of years. Funnily enough, not knowing what you have until it’s gone is also the major theme of this new film. Lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) is away on business when he receives word that his wife has been in a speedboat accident. He rushes back to their Hawaiian hometown where in the hospital she lies in a coma, kept alive by the tubes for breathing and feeding. Her heart’s still beating, but her brain is silent. They didn’t have a perfect marriage, but now they’re on the verge of never seeing, never speaking to each other ever again.

Matt is left having to take care of their daughters all on his own. Little Scottie (Amara Miller) is in trouble at school for bringing in a scrapbook filled with pictures of her comatose mother for show and tell. Alex (Shailene Woodley) is standoffish and, when he picks her up from boarding school, he finds her just a little drunk. These girls are going through a hard time. Alex invites her “friend” Sid (Nick Krause) to come stay with them, emotionally blackmailing her struggling father to get him to agree to the unexpected guest’s presence. “I’ll be a lot more civil with him around,” she threatens with a spiteful teenaged glower.

Matt’s doubly distracted by an impending real estate deal that must be resolved. His ancestors owned a large parcel of land on the island that is now held in common amongst all of his cousins. They’re preparing to sell it and become instant millionaires. It’s a pretty big deal, but it’s hard to make such a major decision when your wife is on the precipice of death. Her will asks that she not be kept alive artificially in the case of just such a catastrophic accident. Matt tells his girls and then sets off to tell close family and friends that it’s time to say their goodbyes.

On top of all this, when he finally confronts Alex on why she’s behaving so bratty, she tells him that his wife, her mother, had been cheating on him prior to the accident. This could easily be a soapy twist, but the film is stronger than that, or rather it’s working for a calmer, more perceptive goal. Discovering and possibly confronting this other man is just another plate that Matt has to keep spinning. How is it possible to be mad at the one you love when it’s impossible to confront her, when it’s time to be saying your final goodbye? The complex emotions in this film are not easily resolvable.

The opening of the film spells out some of this set-up in narration that becomes a bit of a crutch. Most of what’s told is easily understandable from context clues and most of what isn’t could have easily been inserted into dialogue or the production design. What follows, though, is a film of such well-lived performances and thoughtful directorial choices. Reflecting the laid-back atmosphere of a tropical island while taking place in the kind of mundane suburban side-streets and office buildings that could be found in any location, the sturdy, relaxed pace and glimmering observational eye of the film help bring to life this man’s story in a moving and empathetic way without tipping over into self-seriousness.

This is lovely, emotionally engaged filmmaking from Payne who is working from a script co-written with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash that’s moving and involving precisely because of its specificity. Payne has a sharp, observant sensibility that can find the humor in deathly serious situations, making such a clean cut to laughter that emotional heft is left unscathed. This is hardly the funereal dirge that the above plot details could easily have been describing. There’s a vibrant sense of life here in a deep and talented ensemble that includes lovely character moments for a father in-law (Robert Forster), a cousin (Beau Bridges), and a goofy neighborhood couple (Mary Birdsong and Rob Huebel). There’s some especially fine work in scenes given over to a realtor (Matthew Lillard) and his wife (Judy Greer) who first appear late in the film but leave a lasting impact on the emotional terrain. Payne gives the characters room to breathe and grow at a comfortable pace.

This is a film that earns its quiet laughs and warm, tear-jerking sentiment without appearing to break a sweat. Clooney, at the center of it all, gives such a warm, relaxed yet controlled performance that’s removed from the easy charm he brings to most of his roles. Here he disappears into the character in a way that allows his pop culture persona to fade away. Here he’s just an average (though definitely handsomer than average) man struggling with a life that has taken sudden, and unexpected, turns. His performance matches the filmmaking. This is not a flashy movie, but one that lets a potentially loud human drama unfold quietly with great care, great humor, and great sensitivity. 

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