By: Francisco Salazar
Its been 7 years since Alexander Payne directed a feature film. His last film Sideways proved to be his most successful film winning him an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. As a result the stakes were high for his followup.
The Descendants, based the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, tells the story of Matt King, a land baron who tries to reconnect with his two daughters Alexandra and Scottie after the his wife Elizabeth suffers a serious accident that puts her on the verge of Death. The film essentially follows Matt King's journey into figuring out who he is as a father, a husband, a family man and a businessman. He states early on that he is the "Backup parent," but must now be something more and learn to deal with his rebellious college daughter and his younger daughter. He must learn to forgive his dying wife who cheated on him and must make a a business decision for his entire family that will change all of Hawaii (a plot which does little for the story).
All these attributes and character decisions require an actor with diverse facets and tenacity. Payne's decision to cast George Clooney was the best decision of the movie. Clooney demonstrates that he can carry the entire film, showing his customary charismatic and suave persona with some added comic timing to the mix. However aside from the comedy and charm, Clooney gives an emotionally touching performance that sticks with you (virtually the only thing from the film that does). For example when King decides to forgive his wife, Clooney subtly caresses his wife, reminding himself of how much he loved her. In another dramatic moment where Clooney really hits you is when he finds out that his wife's lover Brian Speer, (play by Mathew Lillard) will gain a lot of money if he sells his land to the buyers proposed. Clooney's face expresses confusion, pain and desolation. He is lost yet he is enlightened by the discovery. It is hard to decipher his face but it is this mystery that emphasizes his tenacity.
It's hard to talk about the rest of the cast as they pale in front of Clooney. No matter how good Shailene Woodley, and Amara Miller are, you forget they are even on screen. Judy Greer, Nick Krause and Matthew Lillard round out the cast.
Enough about Clooney and more on Payne. Payne's film is both beautifully shot and wonderfully edited. One of the standouts of this film is how Payne takes advantage of the world where the film takes place. Hawaii is the location of this film and like in Sideways where Payne showed us Wine Country, Payne lets us into the environment. Whether it is in the beautiful beaches, the gorgeous terrain, the natural fruit or the city landscape, Payne's greatest strength here is to creature a picaresque environment. By showing us the world Payne really creates the sense that we are on a journey.
However as much as I really liked all these aspects, The Descendants is a film that did not stick with me. Despite Clooney's touching turn, the film felt dry. The subdued drama made the film feel uneventful throughout and as I stated before, the Hawaii subplot, which eventually connected with the main story, didn't feel all that necessary or transcendent. A solid film, but not one that I will remember for long.