The Descendants

January 28, 2012
Film still of George Clooney, Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley in The Descendants
Film still of George Clooney, Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley in The Descendants

Less than a month out from this year’s Academy Awards, George Clooney is favourite in the Best Actor category for his role in The Descendants. It’s a big year for Clooney as he may also be nominated as Best Director for the political drama, The Ides of March.

Do these awards stand for anything apart from a boost in box office earnings and a few extra millions in a star’s pay packet? Johnny Carson once called the Oscars “two hours of sparkling entertainment spread over four hours”, but two hours seems generous. Some hard cases such as Marlon Brando and George C. Scott have refused to accept their Best Actor awards.

Clooney is the very archetype of the Hollywood actor who deserves to be known for more than his good looks. As a celebrity he has campaigned against human rights abuses and poverty. As a director he has made two insightful films about American politics. Yet he is hardly likely to harangue the Academy Awards audience with a diatribe about Darfur. There is an understated aspect to Clooney’s personality that sets him apart from many of his peers. If he gets over the line at this year’s Oscars it will be for a role that is equally understated.

As the lawyer, Matt King, Clooney is rarely off-screen in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, but he spends most of that time trying to hold his feelings in check.

The story is set in Hawaii, but this is a far cry from the land of palm trees and surfing in which Elvis made three mindless additions to the Hollywood Hall of Shame. Aside from the sunshine and tropical plants it is an impressively ordinary environment. Payne brings us a Chekhovian, middle-class tragedy set off with palm trees and Hawaiian shirts.

It begins with Matt sitting alongside his wife’s bed in an intensive care unit. Elizabeth is in a coma following a water-sky accident, and her husband is feeling guilty about his inadequacies. He will soon be rocked by two revelations: that his wife is not going to recover, and that she was having an affair. His first problem is how to break the news of Elizabeth’s condition to friends and family; most critically to his two daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), and 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley).

The degree of difficulty increases when Alex informs her father that her mother was cheating on him. The delicate tapestry of guilt, tragedy, stoicism and noble sentiments that Matt had been constructing, is suddenly shot to pieces. He has a desperate urge to confront his wife’s lover and those mutual friends who must have known about the affair.

An important subplot concerns a pristine tract of land on the island of Kauai, that Matt and his numerous cousins have inherited from their forbears, one of whom was a Hawaiian princess. Negotiations are under way for the sale and development of this land, a deal worth many millions of dollars. The title of the film refers to the army of cousins who hold this legacy in their hands, and to Matt’s kids, with whom he is trying to build an understanding.

This is as much of the story as one needs to know. The strength of this production, as in Payne’s previous efforts such as About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2004), is in the creation of flawed, credible characters, and a narrative in which comedy and tragedy are so closely aligned that we slip between registers almost imperceptibly. Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) spends the entire film in a vegetative state but she has left a trail of destruction in her wake. It is bleakly funny how successive visitors to her bedside feel compelled to verbally abuse her. To her own angry, garrulous father she was always a golden child, but to everyone else she was a pain.

Payne has the ability to draw excellent performances out of his actors, notably Woodley, whose character is a study in teenage introversion and contradiction; and Nick Krause as her dumb-ass boyfriend, Sid, who can always be relied upon to say the wrong thing. Judy Greer, playing Julie, the wife of Elizabeth’s lover, gets one of the movie’s big scenes in what is essentially a minor role.

The Descendants is a low-key film about human relationships that could have toppled into the ditch of sentimentality with only the smallest nudge from the director. Instead, it stays on course, propelled by a soundtrack of Hawaiian guitar and folksy songs that seem to take the sting out of the increasing tensions of the story. If there are moments when Matt seems almost too decent to be true, he is bottling up a lot of anger that occasionally explodes. He may seem good-hearted but his motives are not entirely pure. By the end we realise that he can take revenge on his faithless wife and her lover while appearing to act in a high-minded, selfless fashion. It’s one of those plausible scenarios that only happens in movies.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, January 28, 2012

The Descendants. USA, Rated M. 115 minutes