Alexander Payne returns, seven years after Sideways, with his best film yet
Published: November 23, 2011
Directed by Alexander Payne
Opens Nov. 23
It’s a tiny, even bizarre detail, but I can pinpoint the precise moment I fell in head-over-heels love with Alexander Payne’s first film since his Oscar-winning Sideways seven years ago: It happened the second actor Robert Forster first appeared.
See, throughout The Descendants, star George Clooney is made up to appear older, as bedraggled and downright awkward as a devastatingly handsome A-list movie star can ever appear. His eyebrows are made bushier and blacker, while his trademark salt-and-pepper locks emphasize the salt. He has a bit of a paunch, and his gait suggests not a war wound so much as a surely self-mythologized sports injury. It’s a remarkable physical transformation, one of subtlety and back-story homework. And all I could think was how much he looked like Robert Forster.
When Forster appears as the cranky father of Clooney’s wife, who lies in a coma from the opening seconds till the bitter end of The Descendants, and is thus unable to convey her own story directly, I smiled and, admittedly, became choked up. Here, Payne revealed something he didn’t need to, but possibly just wanted to: The dying wife married her father. Perhaps that’s why she felt so compelled to leave him.
The Descendants is an almost dirge-like story about grief, but it’s so much more than that. Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian real estate baron, an absentee workaholic, and the benefactor of 25,000 acres of pure paradise, which he inherited from island royalty from generations ago. Due to legal snags, the time has come for him to either sell the land at tremendous profit for himself and his incubus cousins (including Beau Bridges, channeling his real-life brother Jeff as a cocktail-sipping Jimmy Buffett type) or keep it and pay estate taxes on it until it’s practically worthless—which should take about seven years, they estimate.
At the same time, his wife—unseen but for a luminous opening shot of her last seconds, and later in her hospital bed—lies in a coma from a boating accident. King is told that she’s unresponsive and her living will asked that in this circumstance she be removed from life support. The movie finds him a man barely hanging on to sanity, thrust as he is—a self-described “back-up parent” —into the role of sole provider to 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley from ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager).
Oh, and it turns out that his wife was cheating on him while she was among the living. So there’s that.
With all this on his plate—and a tagalong friend of Alexandra’s, stoner fool Sid (Nick Krause), who couldn’t endear himself to a puppy if he wanted to—Matt could easily succumb to the roiling bitterness bubbling to the surface, but he makes something of a project of finding his wife’s lover and seeking answers. It’s on this mission that he discovers Alexandra’s secret weapon: teen bitchiness. As miraculously portrayed by Woodley, who may be the year’s second-biggest revelation (after Martha Marcy May Marlene’s Elizabeth Olsen), she’s at the precise age at which she can slip into angelic or demonic modes depending upon her need. With her willowy figure and long, muted features, she appears more innocent than her record-setting usage of words like “twat” might imply. Dabbling in a private-school bad-girl persona, she and her mother have an embattled recent history, so Alexandra may have even more at stake in preserving and/or tainting her mother’s reputation than Matt, which makes her his perfect driving force and foil. At the same time, her potential for severe guilt-induced sorrow is great, making Matt’s job a delightfully tense tightrope-walking trick. (Payne is clearly taken with Woodley’s abilities and employs them to our great benefit. She’s the subject of a camera shot—which the trailer spoils but I won’t here—that I’ve honestly never seen before.)
It’s the small details in The Descendants that add up to more than the sum of its parts, and it’s Payne’s assured hand that delivers them. It’s a triumph for all, especially the audience.
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