Monday, January 2, 2012

The Descendants

Maybe the most interesting character to think about in Alexander Payne’s new film The Descendants is Elizabeth King, the comatose wife of George Clooney’s Matt King. The only scene we ever see Elizabeth conscious in is the first one in which we get a hint of the boating accident that leaves her waiting to die. What’s interesting about her is that, by the end of the film, when all of the drama that her accident creates has been said and done, Payne doesn’t quite let us know whether to envy her or despise her. Maybe we should do both. In a way she’s the luckiest person on screen, sitting it out while the lives of her family members crash down around them. And yet, in a strange way, everything that happens throughout the film is, in some small way, kind of her fault. As if she dumped a load of crap on her family, checked out and left them to deal with it.

But that has been, more or less, Payne’s style throughout his career (with the exception of maybe his debut Citizen Ruth): to make small movies on big canvases about desperate men struggling with their simple cosmic purpose of just trying to do the right thing despite all their flaws. What’s the meaning of life, some people ponder? In Payne’s world it’s simply to get by with doing as little damage as possible.

The remarkable thing about The Descendants, and what has been remarkable about all of Payne’s (along with writing partner Jim Thompson) work has been how he finds those small human notes that lie under the comedy. Much like the way Payne treats Elizabeth King, he never passes judgement on his characters, never turns them into two dimensional caricatures and never allows them to fully ever do just the right thing or just the wrong thing. We love them all and yet hold our reservations as well. No one is perfect in Payne’s world. Maybe that’s why it always kind of reminds us of ours.

The film opens as Matt King, the descendant of one of the first white land owners in Hawaii, narrates about his life there. Some people call the place paradise; they can’t imagine how fantastic it would be to live there. Ya, screw paradise says Matt, try coming and giving it a try sometime.

King is in one heck of a dilemma. Not only has his youngest daughter been acting out, getting into trouble at school, but his oldest daughter is away at a private school where she can’t get into alcohol and drugs or rebel against her mother, and his wife, who he soon finds out after springing daughter Alex from private school, was cheating on him. His numerous cousins are also anticipating that he will make them all a lot of money by selling a piece of land his ancestors have had in the family for generations and which he is the trustee for. To top it all off, he’s just been told his wife will never recover and it’s time to pull the plug, something his overbearing father-in-law (the invaluable Robert Forrest) silently blames him and the rest of the family for. Screw paradise indeed.

The film takes much of its arch as Matt, his daughters and Alex's stoned boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) travel around the islands looking for the man his wife was seeing; wanting to meet him, see what he looks like, confront him, who knows. He hasn’t thought that far ahead.

If all of this sounds like typical sad-sack drama, in theory, it is. What makes it special is how unafraid Payne is of displaying his character’s rough edges. When King finds out about his wife’s infidelity he doesn’t steam, throw a tantrum or any such thing. He runs; down the street, around the bend and to their friend's house to get any information he can. This is, in a perfect blend of mockery and pathos, not a valiant run or a display of grand melodrama. It is the sad, pathetic, desperate run of a man doing the only thing his irrational mind could think to do in that moment. The entire movie is kind of like that: irrational to the point of comedy and yet deeply moving on a human level because of it.

And look at the way Payne treats characters like Sid: dumb, stoned, the kind of kid you pray your oldest daughter never brings home. Matt gets a few laughs at the kid’s expense and then in a subtle scene that sneaks up on us in a way we could never anticipate, Payne gives him the kind of monologue that won Virgina Madsen an Oscar nomination for Sideways. Sid isn’t just a dumb kid, he’s a kid with a heart and a mind and real dilemmas not far removed from Matt’s own. The movie never elaborates on the bond that passes between these two by the end of this scene. It trusts its audience enough not to have to.

That’s the approach Payne takes through the entire movie: never giving us what common movie logic has dictated his characters should give us. The Forrester character is not a bad man, just his own kind of man; Alex is not a bad kid, just one affected by the actions of her parents; and youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) isn’t troubled in any way, she’s just growing up trying to find herself without the guidance of a mom. Even when we so desperately want King to lash out at his wife and blame her for all the drama she has caused, he doesn’t. He holds himself with dignity and respect. He does, most simply, the right thing, the best way he knows he can.

This of course all revolves around the plot involving the land. Should Matt sell to developers and make his cousins rich or should he keep the land, untouched and pure, the way his ancestors inherited it (the way the natives want it to stay), and figure out a way to keep it in the family? The setting is important, not because we rarely ever see dramas set amidst the tropical backdrop of Hawaii, but because it is a land that his been built through the deep heritage of those who discovered it and their descendants who desperately, as history is slowly devoured by commerce, try to keep that family heritage alive as best they can.

The film is thus, at its heart, one about family and the importance of continued bonds. It ends with one simple shot, which some will deem to be too neat and easy, but it’s the one the film has so rightfully worked its way to deserving. This chapter of this family has closed. For a moment they were on a bumpy ride. What happened was tragic, cruel, unfair and unkind but life goes on, history has been written and these characters continue to learn and grow into the future. Families get shaken up from time to time, kids act out and parents make mistakes, but at the end of the day, no matter the circumstances or price tag, a family will always still be a family. That’s history worth preserving.


  1. Clooney and everybody else included is great but it’s really Payne who shines as the writer bringing out some funny humor but not without forgetting about the real rich moments of human drama. Good review Mike, as usual. A good film but not as great as I was expecting.

  2. your review makes mine look terrible thanks a lot. ;-)
    I liked how subdued he shot the Islands in this film and I of course loved the soundtrack. My second favorite soundtrack this year after Drive.

  3. Kudos to you, Mike -- I like this film slightly better than I liked it yesterday. Unfortunately, yesterday I thought it was the least successful of his five feature films. Sure, that's because he set the bar so high in the others, but I can't help but feel like something is off about this movie, from beginning to end. I could go into particulars -- like, why undercut one of the best performances in the whole film (Judy Greer) the way Payne does? -- but I won't right now. I'll just say that I differ from most people on this film -- and thanks to a well-observed review from you, I differ slightly less than I did yesterday.

  4. Dan 0 & Vance - I'm not sure you're in the minority of your feeling that something is lacking. I've heard that quite a bit from people myself. The ironic thing is that, I was in that boat myself. I wrote the first two paragraphs of this review the night I saw the film and had no idea what else to say because I too felt something was missing. But the more I thought about it, the more I appreciated it and made connections and say what Payne was doing. This is Payne moving one step further away from satire and one step closer to becoming a humanist. The movie has some flaws sure, but I don't think anyone could have made a better movie about this subject than what we have right here.

    3 Guys - Thanks, but no love for The Muppets soundtrack? ;)

  5. Wow, and that reconsideration bumped it all the way up to a 5-star rating? What a comeback! (You know how I love giving you shit about your star ratings.)

    You make a good point about Payne's move toward humanism, though I think there are only baby steps of that move in The Descendants. I was discussing The Descendants with another critic who was lukewarm about it, and told him that Win Win was more the kind of movie I'd like to see Payne making. He shot back "Payne could never make Win Win, because he'd have too much fun making fun of the drug-addicted mommy." That's true, I suppose.