Silver Screen: The Descendants ****1/2
At the movies, 2011 was the Year of the Father-- or at least the Year of the Absentee Father. Sons search for the specters of their dearly departed pops in both Hugo and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, while children struggle with still-living but distant dads in The Tree of Life, We Bought a Zoo, and now The Descendants.
In fact, a single plot synopsis could accurately describe both We Bought a Zoo and The Descendants: Following the loss of his wife, a workaholic father attempts to reconnect with his estranged children while simultaneously struggling over a complicated land deal. In practice, however, the two are very different movies, with the more whimsical and less pensive Zoo grabbing more obviously at the heartstrings, while The Descendants employs more of a realist sensibility and novelistic pace. (Both movies are based on books, The Descendants on the novel of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings.)
George Clooney gives a reliably soulful performance as Matt King, a middle-aged lawyer, heir to a small fortune in cash, and a large fortune in land in Hawaii. To say that Clooney is reliably soulful is no glib dig, just an acknowledgement of impressive consistency; his part here allows him to showcase both his deftness with drama and his ace comedic timing. Matt's wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie, who never speaks a word) suffered head trauma in a boating accident and is comatose; in the early minutes of the film we learn that she has no chance of waking up and will be taken off life support.
Since the accident, Matt's grade-school-age daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) has begun acting out in strange ways. The same cannot be said of his older daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), who was acting out in all the familiar ways prior to the tragedy and now resides at a posh boarding school on a neighboring island.
Not only must Matt worry over his children and provide end-of-life care for his wife, but he's the head of a family trust that governs thousands of acres of land bestowed upon them by island royalty more than one-hundred years ago, and due to legal technicalities that land must soon be sold. A few of his distant relatives want to fight the sale, some want to sell to a trustworthy local, and others want to let the property go to developers who will create a luxury resort. (Land developers, of course, are the number-two villains in all of cinema, barely edged out by the Nazis; let none of us consider that the multiplexes in which we watch these movies were developed and built upon former forests now paved over.)
The setup for The Descendants sounds like a bummer, and while it's true that the movie is tinged with melancholy, it's surprisingly (relatively) light. The worst is over by the time we join the story in progress-- the accident and Matt's understanding that his wife is gone. The film is about recovery and forgiveness, and it succeeds mightily thanks to a cast of exceptionally well-drawn characters.
Director Alexander Payne, working from an excellent script he cowrote with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, finds surprising depth in every character. Bit players like Alexandra’s seemingly dopey boyfriend Sid (a very funny Nick Krause) are revealed to be surprisingly complex, and Payne is able to sympathize with even the most superficially unlikable characters, like Matt's gruff father-in-law (Robert Forster). Each fresh character interaction reveals new depths to the whole cast, thanks in large part to the excellent group of actors. Clooney may lead the pack, but Krause, Forster, and other supporting performers Beau Bridges and Rob Huebel also do great work.
Perhaps the biggest find, talent-wise, is the lovely Woodley, who is remarkable. She's essentially the female lead, and she holds her own with Clooney, which is no mean feat. The sequence in which she learns about her mother's imminent death while swimming belongs in the pantheon of great emotional moments captured at the bottom of pools: Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, Alan Ruck in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Bill Murray in Rushmore.
Director Payne is definitely softening as he ages. His first two films, the dark comedies Citizen Ruth and Election, were awesomely caustic; the former is a mordant morality play about the abortion-rights argument in which everyone but the fetus is upbraided, the latter a still-scathing indictment of the growing animosity in politics. His last two movies have been noticeably more introspective and morose. About Schmidt followed Jack Nicholson's unmoored codger as he experienced a protracted guilt-trip forty years in the making, while Sideways was a character study of a wine snob whose largely self-imposed loneliness soured his life to a vinagrous tang.
Both the latter movies attempt to generate sympathy for domestic devils, but both lean hard on the sympathy angle early on, as though Payne doesn't have the heart to ultimately implicate his characters the way he once did. But this softening of his worldview isn't all bad, and while it led to occasionally mawkish moments, especially in Schmidt, it implies the kind of growing urge to understand, rather than condemn, that comes with middle age.
But Matt King is Payne's first truly likable protagonist. On paper he's perhaps as aloof as the early Payne characters crying out for redemption. He's an absentee father, he's wealthy by inheritance, he's brokering the sale of virgin land to condo developers, and worst of all, he's a lawyer. It's obvious from the first minutes of the movie, however, that Matt is perplexed but not lost in any kind of existential sense. Payne isn't confrontational here, challenging the audience to find sympathy. Matt is flawed but definitively a good man. It's a slightly older, wiser Payne who sees that a fundamentally redeemable character, one who has made the decision to be a good person, is every bit as beset by calamity, uncertainty, and anxiety as one with a definitive moral dilemma. At no point does Matt's ultimate salvation seem truly in question, but Payne still earns it, right down to the wonderful closing shot, which finds transcendence in the mundane.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.