With the awards season officially underway, suburban cinephiles are advised to keep a lookout for high-class Oscar bait trickling into their local theaters. Though The Descendants opened in Chicago back in November, it finally expanded to Skokie this past weekend, and was the only new mainstream release worth seeing (my apologies to New Year’s Eve and The Sitter).
It’s the latest film from director Alexander Payne, who has routinely elicited career-best work from his leading men, such as Paul Giamatti (Sideways), Matthew Broderick (Election) and Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt). With The Descendants, Payne has created the ideal vehicle for George Clooney, whose suave characterizations have often drawn comparisons to Cary Grant. Yet as in Jason Reitman’s wonderful Up in the Air, Descendants strips Clooney of his cool confidence, while exploring previously untapped depths of emotion and vulnerability in his screen persona.
Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the film centers on Matt King (Clooney), a middle-aged father of two in Hawaii. He’s been treading water ever since a boating accident caused his wife (Patricia Hastie) to fall into a coma. In the opening narration, Matt labels himself, “the back-up parent” to his daughters, moody boarding school student Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and mischievous young Scottie (Amara Miller). In light of the recent tragedy, Matt breaks out of his busy schedule in to reconnect with his children. He’s also inching toward making a pivotal decision on whether to sell the priceless tropical land handed down to him from his descendants (hence the title).
Moviegoers who’ve glimpsed at the trailer are already aware of the unpredictable tale’s first major twist. If you have no knowledge of the film’s plot, feel free to stop reading past this paragraph. Payne’s script, co-authored with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, is a masterwork of audaciously complex and impeccably modulated tones. It tackles painful and unsettling subject matter with such endearing humanity and raw honesty that it becomes palatable for any cinematic taste. Payne hasn’t directed a film since 2004’s Sideways, and this picture made me realize just how much I’ve missed his bittersweet gems of seriocomic drama.
With the exception of his 1996 debut feature, Citizen Ruth (which took a scathing look at the abortion debate), Payne’s films have often centered on troubled male characters reaching a turning point in their lives. Yet Payne has proven to be just as skilled at working with young actors, particularly Reese Witherspoon (who was just 23 when she delivered her comedic tour de force in Election). The break-out star of Descendants is 20-year-old Woodley, a magnetic actress still best known for her lead role on the ABC soaper, “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.” It’s under Payne’s direction that Woodley truly blossoms, going toe-to-toe with Clooney with a fearlessness that has made her an instant star.
In one of the film’s early emotional highpoints, Woodley tearfully confesses to Matt why she had been harboring anger toward her comatose mother. Prior to the accident, Alexandra discovered that her mom had been conducting a secret affair with a real estate broker (Matthew Lillard). This sudden revelation causes Matt to embark on a journey to meet his wife’s secret lover, while taking his daughters on a bonding trip across the Hawaiian isles. What could’ve been a contrived travelogue in the hands of a lesser filmmaker is transformed by Payne into one of finest American films of 2011.
There isn’t a single laugh in the film that is earned through manufactured punch lines. Payne is deftly skilled at mining the humor in life’s inherent messiness. Consider the scene where Alexandra brings her friend, a smirking stoner named Sid (Nick Krause), to a tense visit with her mother’s parents, Scott (Robert Forster, in his best role since Jackie Brown) and the Alzheimer’s-stricken ‘Tutu’ (Barbara L. Southern). When ‘Tutu’ mistakes her daughter for the Queen of England, Sid can’t help but laugh, which inspires a swift and intense reaction from Scott. The scene is simultaneously funny and sad without ever sacrificing its authenticity.
It’s only in a later scene where Sid exposes his own personal heartbreak that the dialogue feels a trifle tacked on. Of course, without this scene, Sid might’ve registered as a one-note caricature, and it’s clear that Payne intends on avoiding shallow stereotypes at all costs. A glance at the film’s shooting script illustrates that a great deal more dialogue was written but never made it to the final cut. With the aid of Sideways cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, Payne allows various nuances to be conveyed without the use of excessive words.
The final act of Descendants is loaded with dramatic payoffs that are entirely earned yet refuse to wrap the story in a tidy bow. There are plum parts for character actors such as Beau Bridges, Judy Greer and Lillard, who proves here (as he did in Drake Doremus’s lovely indie Spooner) that he sorely deserves more nuanced roles than Shaggy Rogers. Yet this is Clooney’s show through and through, and he immerses himself so deeply within his character’s flaws, frailties and wounded strength that he earns the audience’s sympathy, as well as their laughter and tears. Clooney is an American treasure, and so is Payne.
The Descendants opened Dec. 9 at the AMC Showplace Village Crossing 18 in Skokie. It is ranked at number 7 this weekend behind New Year’s Eve, The Sitter, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1, The Muppets, Arthur Christmas and Hugo, and brought its total to $23.6 million, according to Box Office Mojo. It is rated R.