This review was originally written for French Toast Sunday, as part of my USA Road Trip series.
When his wife suffers a boating accident and is thrown into a coma, wealthy land-owner Matt King (George Clooney) finds himself having to deal not only with his wife’s tragedy, but also their two daughters, an important land deal and some revelations about his wife’s life. The Descendants is probably the most morbid comedy I’ve ever seen. Considering the central plot revolves around the probable death of a beloved mother, wife and daughter, you’d expect there to be nary a laugh in sight, yet it’s a testament to Alexander Payne’s skill as a director along with Jim Rash and Nat Faxon’s thoroughly deserving Oscar-winning screenplay that this film achieves the impossible balancing act of a tragedy where you deeply care for the characters involved, but are often highly amused by the situations they find themselves in. Let’s take the central character of Matt. After he’s already received some pretty astronomically bad news about his wife’s condition, he then makes a discovery regarding her life before the accident, which in some films would have reduced the main character to an empty shell of tears and despair. What happens here? Well, we’re treated to the sight of George Clooney running full pelt along a road wearing the most determined expression he can muster, and flip-flops. If you’ve ever tried, you’ll know it’s damn near impossible to run efficiently in such ridiculous footwear, and Clooney looks so hilariously awkward that you’d be forgiven for laughing, despite the details of what’s actually going on.Elsewhere, Clooney does some stellar eyebrow work over a hedge, plus there’s the character of Sid (Nick Krause), the dim-witted friend of Matt’s daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley). Sid is a guy who, were he real, you’d absolutely hate, but here he’s a welcome source of comic relief who plays well off everyone else’s relatively somber tone. His first meeting with Matt is great (“’sup, bro?”), and it’s only marginally better than his first interaction with Matt’s father-in-law (a scene-stealing Robert Forster). The comedy it always justified and feels natural to the scenes.Clooney is perfectly cast as Matt. He has a world weary quality to him that seems to have roughened the edges of his usually glossy Hollywood demeanor, which really humanizes his character. He is a man who self-confesses his role as the “back-up parent,” one who hasn’t really had much to do with his kids for a long time, and who didn’t expect to be taking such a pivotal role in their young lives. He goes through a lot of inner turmoil, often retaining information until he can’t keep it pent up any longer, which is often at the worst possible moment. He has an awful lot of heavy-lifting to do, often working alongside a comatose figure and, in one memorably heart-wrenching scene, having a full-on argument with said patient, to whom the camera looks expectantly for a response that will never come.In fact, the whole cast is excellent, with great chemistry between them, even from the newcomers. Woodley is just wonderful, which should be no surprise seeing as she’s been acting since she was 8 – she’s Marissa’s little sister in The O.C.! Which now makes me feel a bit icky. Anyway, this was a great launching pad for her now flourishing career, and I couldn’t be happier. She has a difficult character to play – a rebellious teenager who needs to act like an adult for her younger sister (Amara Miller), but who still wants to behave like a child – but she pulls it off admirably, as does Miller in the relatively thankless role of bratty kid who doesn’t quite grasp the severity of the situation at hand.One aspect I admire about Alexander Payne’s work – and it’s something that was really brought to my attention by Siobhan over at Film Flammers, who has been fortunate enough to actually meet the guy and have a full blown conversation with him, not that I’m jealous at all – is his ability to use locations that look real and lived in. When most people think of Hawaii, and I include myself in this list, they undoubtedly picture the idyllic beaches peppered with sunbathing beauties, or holidaying families enjoying drinks that are really more solid fruit than liquid, or maybe even a ridiculously expensive wedding. What you probably don’t imagine is business meetings, relationship woes and potentially fatal injuries. Hell, you probably don’t even consider that the swimming pools there get clogged up with leaves, just like they do everywhere else. Payne is only too eager to point out that these situations occur everywhere in the world, not just where it’s always grey and overcast, which coincidentally his Hawaii sometimes is. There’re walls with peeling paint, palm trees that have seen better days and bars that seem to think yodeling is enjoyable to listen to. So many film makers opt instead for immaculate, pristine environments that it’s refreshing to see such a seemingly perfect setting being displayed just like everywhere else.I couldn’t recommend this film more, and I’d say it’s possibly even better on a repeat viewing. The comedic moments still produced a chuckle, and this time around I really made the effort to properly appreciate the magnificent acting performances on display. It’s films like this that make me truly love Alexander Payne.
Choose Film 9/10