Sunday, November 27, 2011

"The Descendants" is Intelligent, Poignant, Like A Good Novel

"The Descendants" is a return to the kind of character-driven, domestic screen drama that Hollywood rarely favors these days, and usually only during the crowded winter months when studios jockey for Oscar attention.  Directed by Alexander Payne, and adapted by Payne and Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the tone and feel of "The Descendants" has more in common with films like "The Kids are All Right", or "The Savages", than Payne's previous "Sideways" or "About Schmidt".  

A viewer who appreciates a classically-made film will begin to relax into it; and suddenly there is something edgy or unusual, so that one is sometimes taken aback, or more often exhilarated, as the film stirs the emotions.  "The Descendants" is one of the most poignant and original films of the year.

Watching "The Descendants" is similar to the experience of enjoying a good novel.  The plot has several elements, and a number of subplots layered with observations of character, so that we are as interested in how these people will emotionally survive, as we are in how the threads of the story will play out. 

The film's locations are the larger cities and the untouched coastal beaches of the Hawaiian islands.  It takes a clear-eyed, realistic view of the terrain, and deglamorizes it.  The film is beautifully photographed, with colorful and textured interiors and pleasant vistas.  The filmmakers avoid the usual digital cliches, the monochrome look and the "moody" shadows, preferring to keep the film crisply lit, so that we can study the faces of these unusual characters and their interesting surroundings.   The use of Hawaiian guitar and native vocals on the soundtrack, novel and somewhat humorous at first, soon becomes a natural part of the state of mind of the characters.  We are quickly absorbed in a world that is familiar but thankfully very different from many current movies about modern families.

After his wife is sent into a coma after a boating accident, workaholic lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) must re-engage with his two daughters, Alexandra and Scottie.  Alex, the oldest (Shailene Woodley), is in a private school to help deal with her wild behavior, but is still drinking.  Scottie, the youngest,  (Amara Miller), wants so much to understand the adult world, and tries to behave older than her years, but needs love and attention, and frequently acts out.   It is gradually revealed that King has neglected them for a long time; even he admits that he has no idea what to do for them.

King is also the trustee of a plot of pristine ocean coastline.  As the great-great-great-grandson of a family of Hawaiian royalty, King is involved in a complicated land sale, which would bring his family (mostly of a group of amusingly greedy extended cousins) a lot of money, but which has divided the residents of the area, who do not wish to see the land developed.

Into this drops a bombshell: Alex tells King that his wife had been cheating on him with a local realtor, and suddenly his devotion to his career has a new and dire consequence.  He seems to be the only one who did not know.

At this point, "The Descendants" launches into a road film of sorts, as King takes his daughters, and Alex's new boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), to the hospital on a nearby island to tend to his wife, and to deal with his churning emotions.  Along the way, he bonds with daughter Alex as, together, they hunt down realtor Brian Speer, the object of his wife's affair, in order to ... well, he isn't quite sure what he will do.

All of these threads weave into a satisfying fabric of visuals and unpredictable plot developments, but mostly they exist as a moving character study.  We learn to care for these people and are drawn in to their foibles, their alliances, and their changes. 

"The Descendants" is a neatly-paced two hours, filled with incident, humor, and melancholy. While moving us through the development of these characters and resolving various relationships, it quietly develops a lot of ideas that enrich the film, enlarge it, and enhance the viewing experience.  "The Descendants" becomes the story of the divide between generations, the bitterness of aging, the demand for parental respect, the support of siblings, the adjustment to the death of loved ones, the repair of the delicate bonds of family and friendships, and the responsibilities one has to the memory of one's ancestry (vs. monetary temptation).

This could be George Clooney's best film role.  While at first appearing almost too nice to have been so accused of neglecting his family, he makes us believe that he has made some mistakes without ever being a terrible guy.  Clooney perfectly modulates his responses, doing so much with his face and body language that we soon forget this is a well-known actor.  Sporting wind-weathered gray hair and a few extra pounds, Clooney is the key to the film's gentle humor.  His easygoing, bemused presence lets the viewer identify with him, and he grounds the picture as everything around him seems to be spinning out of control.  In a big scene when he confronts his friends with the news, and later when he explodes in anger at his unresponsive wife in the hospital, Clooney is marvelously, perfectly right.

The aforementioned hospital scene is characteristic of the way "The Descendants" jars the viewer's expectations, allowing us to recover with a new point of view on everything we have just seen.  King's anger is perfectly justifiable; at the same time, there's the horrible possibility that his wife can hear and understand everything without being able to respond, or defend herself.  A moment later, eldest-daughter Alex lets go a string of invective, and King demands that she show her mother respect.  It disturbs us because we are pulled into so many directions with our own responses, so that we need to look closer at the people up on the screen, and come to some deeper understanding of them.  The film guides us, and it mostly works.

Shailene Woodley, as Alex, has the sharp beauty of a young Natalie Portman, and is surprisingly expressive. Her transformation from a foul-mouthed shrew of a daughter to King's ally may be a bit of a stretch, but the script, and her playing of it, are clever and engaging. It is a bit grating to hear her hurl insults at her father, while he seems to accept it helplessly, until a brief exchange where he confronts her (and a whole generation) for having no respect for authority. 

Amara Miller will break your heart as the youngest daughter.  She has her wild moments too, which mostly produce laughs.  The scene in the hospital when she is told that her mother may not survive is done without words, only music on the soundtrack, and her expression of pain is all we need to know about what has just happened.

There is some terrific and unexpected supporting work here as well.  As Sid, Nick Krause is appropriately annoying as the boyfriend, a parents' worst nightmare of a laid-back, know-nothing surfer dude, until a late-night dialogue between him and Clooney changes everything, and seals their relationship in a heartwarming bond.  The punch Krause suffers at the hands of King's father-in-law, and the ensuing scene, garner one of the film's biggest laughs. As the father-in-law, Robert Forster, so wonderful in "Medium Cool", plays the angry old man with surprising shades of humor, and finally, warmth.  As annoying as he is most of the time, we can't help but extend our hearts to him as he patiently communicates with his Alzheimers-afflicted wife, and must say goodbye to his daughter. 

Beau Bridges makes a welcome return, a"Dude" with awesome eyebrows, as one of Clooney's cousins.  It's a role meant to provide plot information, but Bridges gives this little role a lot of heart and presence.

Matthew Lillard, as King's wife's lover  Brian Speer, has a brief but memorable role, nailing the mannerisms of a man who may make a lot of money from Clooney's land deal, and who cannot fathom the possible consequences of the misstep he had taken.  As Lillard's unsuspecting wife, Judy Greer has a hospital scene that is so good that she is worthy of the Beatrice Straight award for her small but powerfully memorable performance.

I suspect that much of the film's success is due to the source material. I have not read Hemmings' novel, but I plan to.  If my hunches are correct, I must applaud Payne for bringing out the best of the book, for establishing a consistent tone, and for brilliantly creating an atmosphere for his marvelous performers to work at their peak.  "The Descendants" is a film that should be seen, and enjoyed, by anyone who cares about screen drama.

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