Let’s be honest: dealing with/talking about the loss of a loved one often means either experiencing immensely difficult pain or sounding cloyingly sentimental.
But Alexander Payne‘s The Descendants somehow manages to avoid both. Instead, it approaches the pain of loss head-on while capturing the hilarity of life’s realities in a way that makes you chuckle (and so relieves the pain).
It wouldn’t work if the characters weren’t so well-acted or the Hawaiian scenery any less beautiful. But as it is, it’s a delight.
As the inheritor of a wealthy family’s trust fund (in the form of Hawaiian property, stunningly gorgeous, inherited by a family descended of a real estate trader and a Hawaiian princess), Matt King (played by George Clooney) is faced with some tough leadership decisions, while the family considers selling their last tract of property to be sold to a business wanting to build a mega resort. King is the one making the final decision because he’s one of the more responsible in the family (fiscally-speaking), a real estate lawyer, and the primary beneficiary for the account.
On top of that responsibility, and (did I mention?) having to deal with his wife’s impending death, Clooney’s character has to figure out fast how to raise his two daughters. Until now, his wife’s done most of the work, while he’s been off working, being responsible, saving money. The one daughter (Scottie, played by Amara Miller) is a 10-year-old and an unwitting bully, who swears like a sailor. The other, the older one (Alex, played by Shailene Woodley), is apparently rehabbing from a small drug addiction and when her father comes to fetch her at a boarding school on another island, she’s totally trashed.
Then, to top it all off, Matt learns his wife Elizabeth (played by Patricia Hastie), before being tossed off a little raft tied behind a motor boat and made comatose, was having an affair. Her friends knew, and her eldest daughter knew, but her husband didn’t. because he was too disconnected. working as a real estate lawyer.
As I said, The Descendants’ story was for me painful and exceedingly depressing. But because of the way the filmmakers chose to tell the story, I still found the film both hilarious and deeply moving.
When Matt hears from his daughter that his wife’s been cheating on him, for instance, he gets all in a huffed-up, semi-controlled rage, throws on flip-flops, orders Alex to watch her sister, and then run / stumbles down the street, around the corner, through sunny glades of Hawaiian suburbia, and into the home of his semi-neighborly friends to — once he’s caught his breath — demand they tell him the name of the man his wife’s been cheating with. They at first refuse, and Matt is near helpless to get it out of them. You feel sorry for him. but you respect that he wants to keep things civil. And that he’s shocked: He doesn’t know what he should do.
The way the scene plays out, I think, it captures the shock, the pain, the outrage, the confusion – and then still the absurdity: which is what makes you laugh, even while you cry.
Obviously, George Clooney is on top of his game. He is brilliant as Matt King, from the opening voice-over (that to me sounded so artificial and affected) to when he squirts out a tear on first hearing from the doctor his wife is going to die and at the end to the much more engaged father and family man.
Director Alexander Payne draws on earlier impressions formed of Clooney through characters he’s played in films like Up in the Air (2009) or Burn After Reading (2008), in which Clooney plays anything but a devoted family man. In The Descendants, it’s all turned around, as we see Clooney (as Matt King) dealing with difficult circumstances, as anybody would, as best he can. Sometimes that means sensitivity, charm and wit. Sometimes it means sticking awkwardly to misplaced social convention. But at least for us, the viewers, never does it mean disappointment.
I also really loved the way Shailene Woodley portrays the troubled seventeen-year-old daughter, Alexandra. Though lesser known (her biggest role ’til now has been the “American Teenager” in that 2008-2011 TV show The Secret Life), Woodley carries herself in The Descendants with pizazz and spunk. Her character’s going through some angsty years, and that can be hard to portray without doing a caricature. But Woodley really pulls it off. It’s no surprise she’s received an Oscar nomination.
I loved The Descendants because it is believable and real, yet exotic. because it never makes fun of people in pain, but it doesn’t hesitate to portray them responding to pain in ways you could take with amusement as much as with serious consideration.
It was a dramedy. and a very good film.