Nuanced story is pitch perfect
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Nov 18, 2011
George Clooney doesn't put a foot wrong except on purpose in "The Descendants," a pitch-perfect movie that threads a microscopically tiny needle between high comedy and devastating drama.
Clooney's misstep, if you can call it that, occurs when his character, Matt King, makes a pivotal discovery and high-tails it to a neighbor's house with all the physical grace of a recently castrated ostrich; Clooney's syncopated, ungainly run has been replayed to death in trailers and advertisements for "The Descendants," suggesting that it's all slapstick buffoonery and "Little Miss Sunshine" dysfunction.
In reality, the film is much more than that: a tough, tender, observant, exquisitely nuanced portrait of mixed emotions at their most confounding and profound - all at play within a deliciously damp, un-touristy Hawaii that's at once lush and lovely to look at, even while stripped of its most insultingly idealized tropes.
Is "The Descendants" a laugh-out-loud comedy? Or a multi-hankie melodrama? An escapist star vehicle or scruffy indie road trip movie? Larger than life or completely true to it? The answer, gratifyingly, is yes.
Most people are familiar with cognitive dissonance, the ability to hold two conflicting thoughts at the same time. "The Descendants" is an ode to emotional dissonance, wherein regret and antic humor can coexist and even share a drink; it's a tricky tonal high-wire act that writer-director Alexander Payne, working from Kaui Hart Hemmings's novel, pulls off with uncommon skill and aplomb.
King, as Clooney's voice tells us in a voice-over, is the wealthy descendant of Hawaiian royalty, a privileged native of the islands who as the movie opens is watching his wife, Elizabeth, lie comatose in a hospital bed after suffering a near-fatal boating accident. A distant husband and father, Matt must find a way to bond with his daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley), the first of whom has a penchant for flipping her dad the bird, while the latter is spending her boarding school years in a cloud of permanent rage and incipient alcoholism.
While Matt struggles to be a genuine father after being "the understudy" for so many years, he's also navigating the sale of a pristine plot of land on Kauai that his family - descended on one side from the first king of Hawaii - has owned for years. While Matt contemplates the meaning of his family's heritage, he also makes a series of hilariously flawed attempts to create a future with what might be a new, if unwelcome, family configuration as his wife hovers in a vegetative state her friends and family refuse to acknowledge.
As Payne has done in his previous films ("Citizen Ruth," "Election," "About Schmidt," "Sideways"), he has assembled a consistently outstanding cast in "The Descendants," which seems built on one breakout performance after the last.
As Alex, newcomer Woodley convincingly coils herself into a spoiled, surly bundle of adolescent angst. Nick Krause, as Alex's dim but sweet boyfriend, Sid, provides welcome moments of serenely clueless humor, and Robert Forster, as Matt's father-in-law, nails one of the film's most memorable scenes when he delivers a perfectly timed punch, all the more surprising for being preceded by the blunt warning, "I'm going to hit you."
But it's Judy Greer - the assured but overshadowed comic support in any number of generic rom-coms - who delivers the most breathtaking moments as a woman whose life becomes intertwined with the Kings. She embodies the film's thorniest emotional contradictions with the calibrated control of a master.
With the exception of that untouched parcel of Kauai real estate, nothing is pure in "The Descendants" - not love or anger, or grief, or joy. Eschewing his movie-star glamour without once shedding his compulsive watchability, Clooney moves through all those feelings in his best, most complex performance since "Michael Clayton." What's more, he easily inhabits the trappings of wealth and inherited privilege that in this era of unseemly income disparities could easily come off as remote and elitist, but instead serves as an improbably honest, grounded conceit for the burdens of stewardship.
When Scottie complains that she never got to camp out on the land her father is selling, she sums up practically every story we read today about what one generation owes the next.
As "The Descendants" makes vividly, touchingly, wonderfully imperfectly clear, the answer has something to do with making sure to reach back while you move forward and not minding when you put an occasional foot wrong along the way.