The Descendants (2011, Alexander Payne)
[Note: Just a bit of housecleaning; this is a review I posted at my old blog in 2011 just before I launched this one and I’m simply transferring it over here.]
The Descendants is Alexander Payne’s followup to Sideways — a film I personally disliked quite a bit — and really a relatively safe, quiet movie in story terms. The general notion of a man discovering that his unconscious wife, in this case comatose after a boating accident, was carrying on an affair reaches back not only to Almodovar’s Talk to Her, one of the past decade’s cinematic benchmarks, but also Payne’s own masterful About Schmidt. But it approaches the crucial story points wrought by such a scenario with such wit, and such palpable emotion, that it brings to mind James L. Brooks at his best, and even — during certain sublime sequences that appear periodically — Billy Wilder. Payne is certainly revealing his auteurist impulses here, given how much the general tone and preoccupations evoke his two previous films, but aside from a somewhat haphazardly tossed-in subplot about land ownership, this is immensely rewarding entertainment with subtlety, acid, and the kind of wonderful moments that can make you exclaim aloud in a crowded movie theater.
But Payne also owes much of his success this time around to his actors. George Clooney, never a performer I’ve had much affection for, has been outdoing himself in recent years with ballsy and ambiguous roles as seen in Up in the Air and even Fantastic Mr. Fox, his contribution to which is frankly the finest and most nuanced voice performance I can think of in American animation. Here, Clooney goes even farther with the breakdown of his own star-power assurances, constantly submitting himself to connive viciously — and to be humiliated. He’s a father attempting to carry on with the half-assed parenting that’s gotten him off the hook for over a decade after becoming the only available authority figure to his two daughters, one an alcoholic teenager (Shailene Woodley) and the other a precocious but troubled middle schooler (Amara Miller) who’s into photography. Clooney mastered stabbing pathos in Up in the Air; he’s a much nastier, grouchier creature this time… yet still oddly sympathetic. When he’s accused of being an absentee father by family, friends, his own children even, we feel defensive of him. When he blasts out with hurtful barbs against others, Payne never fails to clue us in on his illogical but emotionally fired-up reasons, a skill he seems to have honed since the disastrous Thomas Haden Church character in Sideways. The result is that we’re always going to bat for Clooney, even when we probably shouldn’t, and that’s what they call movie magic.
My loss of a parent this year might be one reason I found the story and the characters more believable than in most movies of this stripe. My relationship with my dad was extremely rocky and ambiguous, so for me Shailene Woodley’s portrayal of the older daughter Alex, lashing out in every manner against her distance from both her parents, was unexpectedly touching. Even if the film might put too fine a point on matters of family and estrangement and the wars within blood borders, the actual depicted reality of this father-daughter relationship rings painfully true, and the small triumphs that feed it along don’t seem forced. Payne cops occasionally to the go-to tricks that have made most competent character-based American comedies since Little Miss Sunshine seem a little too much like, well, Little Miss Sunshine: for instance the oafish boyfriend Sid (amusingly portrayed by Nick Krause) who of course is Actually a Complicated Guy; the strange and sometimes over-the-top peripheral characters, in particular the extended family of Clooney’s Matt, a group of money-hungry stereotypes. But Payne’s equally able to inject crushing reality into his scenes, as when we meet wife Elizabeth’s dementia-addled mother and her father (Robert Forster) who despises Matt, a sort of reverse-echo of Schmidt.
You could spend all day outlining the ways that this movie recalls About Schmidt, but the crucial difference is that The Descendants allows the audience much catharsis that was painstakingly denied in the earlier project. Matt discovers his wife’s affair via older daughter Alex; the two spend the remainder of the film attempting to track her lover down and embarrass him (a scummy real estate agent played brilliantly by Matthew Lillard). And rather than keep a safe Hollywood distance, well, that’s exactly what happens. Not only that — the man’s wife (Judy Greer) discovers the truth and appears in Elizabeth’s hospital room and, well, it’s all wonderfully uncomfortable and nothing goes quite as you’d expect, one of many individual scenes that spirals off into uncharted territory. When all of this is played against the tragedy of a mother and wife braindead with the plug about to be pulled, there’s more than a little jagged Solondz-ness to the laughter and the cringing, which is a high compliment. In some ways the entire movie is a rebuttal of sorts to Schmidt the character’s constant containment, revenge for the ways he allows himself to be walked upon.
My favorite thing about Payne’s work, even in the films I haven’t really liked, is his eye for odd details that aren’t really artificial quirks: much of the theater audience seemed to get less of a kick out of Clooney clumsily jumping into flip flops and racing around the neighborhood than I did; there’s something tragically amusing as well about his behavior, his visible inability to know how and what to feel, in the scene of he and his daughters spreading Elizabeth’s ashes, a compensation in a way for the slightly overwrought goodbye scene beforehand. There are similar lived-in, unpolished details throughout the picture; Woodley in particular seems to thoroughly occupy her character, so much that the perverse settings of her various back-and-forths with her dad feel palpably real in a sense that all of the more conventional business with “Sid” does not. I also love, as in Sideways, the use of television as a strange comedic backdrop / counterpoint, which reminds me a bit of stuff like Mr. Rogers and Basketball Jones showing up in Being There.
Payne doesn’t typically oversell the idea of any of his characters changing, so the screenwriterly device of the botched land sale seems to flow against his better judgment. That’s no matter — he has the perfect goodbye for these characters, illustrating tenderly but at arm’s length the fragments of a family forming in something of a triangle, one that may not fit together for long but does for this moment. Payne doesn’t put his broken people back together again. He just sets them along the right path, and hopefully us as well.