Review: The Descendants

Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by:Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Patricia Hastie, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer
Released: January 12, 2012
Grade: A

Election is one of the greatest films of all time.  I’m just putting that out there.  Starring Reece Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick, the movie centred on a high school student election that went totally pear shaped.  It was a major achievement for writer-director Alexander Payne who proved that a story can be both tragic and hilarious.

The film earned Payne (along with co-writer Jim Taylor) an Academy Award nomination in 2000 for best adapted screenplay.  He didn’t take home the coveted statuette that night (losing to The Cider House Rules) but he did a few years later for Sideways, an enthralling tale about a depressed wine connoisseur.

After a 7 year absence where he was “distracted by other stuff”, Payne has finally returned to the big screen with The Descendants.  If you’re a fan of his previous works then you will love this!  It has been crafted from the Payne “mould” in the sense that it’s based on a novel, features complicated characters and delicately mixes comedy with drama.

The story is set in Hawaii but don’t expect to see anyone “sipping Mai Tais, shaking their hips and catching waves.”  Matt King (Clooney) makes this clear from the very start.  He’s a wealthy, hardworking lawyer who spends most of his day in an office (albeit with a nice view).  He hasn’t stood on a surfboard for more than decade.

Matt’s life is about to undergo a major adjustment however.  His wife (Hastie) is badly injured in a water-skiing accident and now lies in a coma on a hospital bed.  Her chances of recovery look bleak.  Accustomed to being the “back-up parent”, Matt realises he must spend time with his two daughters, 17-year-old Alex (Woodley) and 10-year-old Scottie (Miller), to help them deal with the situation.

It happens time and time again but I’m always amazed at how tragic events have an uncanny way of bringing people closer together.  On a broader scale, we saw it happen here in Brisbane a year ago with the devastating floods.  So many people opened their wallets and volunteered their time to assist those most in need.

It’s a point skilfully illustrated in The Descendants.  We will all encounter unavoidable tragedy at some stage in our lives.  The tough part is stepping back and realising that it can have positives.

The film boasts some beautiful sequences where Matt slowly bridges the divide between himself and his daughters.  Speaking insightfully and realistically, George Clooney, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller are a delight to watch.  I particularly liked the way in which the kids are helping the father as much as he’s helping them.  I hate to pick out certain scenes but there’s a great moment where they all work together to “befriend” a couple (Lillard and Greer) who live by the beach.

As I alluded to above, the film has plenty of laughs to offset the heavy subject matter.  Most of them are provided by Alex’s new boyfriend, Sid (Krause), a dopey surfer who seems to always open his mouth at the wrong time.  Sid could easily have been a distracting, irritating character but Payne gives him depth and you’ll soon realise he’s a good kid with a calming influence.

I was lucky enough to talk to Alexander Payne on the red carpet at the film’s world premiere in Toronto last September.  I asked why he was attracted to Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel and he said it was because of the “complicated yet credible human story in an exotic location”.  That’s a neat way of describing The Descendants and if Payne keeps telling such wonderful stories, I’ll remain a devoted fan!

You can see me talking with Alexander Payne and George Clooney at the world premiere below.

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aRrbjt_EaIE