By Bret Dorman
It’s hard to tell people you’re going to tell them a funny joke, then make them laugh. It’s even harder to tell people you’re going to tell them a story about a coma patient, a land deal, and adultry, then make them laugh. And yet, Alexander Payne’s newest film The Descendants shines when it’s at its most mundane. Normal little interactions are milked for their most socially awkward gold while the bigger weight of the characters’ responsibilities always looms overhead.
The Story: Matt King (George Clooney) as three things to worry about. 1) His big land deal in Hawaii, where he lives. 2) His wife who is in a coma. and 3) His daughters, Alexandra and Scottie (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller). Things complicate as all three merge and secrets are revealed and relationships tested. Also, as mentioned in the parenthetical, there are NO volcano eruptions. Not even a little bit.
The funniest part for me came right near the beginning, when Matt King had to take his youngest daughter over to a schoolmates house to apologize for something. He tries desperately to teach his daughter to do the right thing… while he himself can not stand the mother of the kid he is making his daughter apologize to. This idea of trying to do teach your children to do the ‘adult’ thing while using your own ‘adult’ privileges to not do the ‘adult’ thing echoes throughout the movie, most effectively later when King has a heated conversation with his bed ridden coma wife, then tries to put on a good show for his children.
Early on, as in the previews, we learn that King’s wife has been cheating on him. Even to the point where she planned on leaving him. He learns this at a time when his family needs him to be strong not just for his sake, but their own sake as well. Even the best friends who are reluctant to ‘take sides’ consider him selfish for putting them in this situation during ‘his’ time of need. This affair is also the source of the tension between King and his eldest daughter. She is sorry for him while at the same time angry with him. She wants him to react the way she as he sets aside his emotions to do the ‘adult’ thing. The actress, Shailene Woodley in her first feature film role, is beautiful, leggy, and willing to go head to head with Clooney in every way. He helps her along in the same way he helped Kendricks in Up In The Air (not that either needed it). It never feels like charity. Perhaps he just brings out the best in younger women actresses?
The biggest ‘indie film’ touches are the Sid, the surfer dude bro-friend of Alexandra, sa played by Nick Krause. His addition to the team on their Hawaiian road trip feels a bit forced, but he has his moments. At first it’s annoying when he laughs at an elderly woman who clearly has some fading health issues in the form of mental competency. He deserves to be ‘cold-cocked’. Later, Sid has a touching moment where he almost makes you feel as though he is smarter than he leads people on to believe. Almost. The second one is King’s father-in-law, played by Robert Forrester (with whom I’ve shaken hands with!). He plays a typical grumpy old man who you root to get his comeuppance except that by the end you would secretly feel bad if he really did. His biggest flaw is in how he sees no flaws in his daughter.
As stated before, all three stories sort of merge. Not in a big profound way (volcano eruption?!… no?…oh…), but good enough. There is a great scene that takes place near the end, where one final character gets a coma convo with the wife. Payne seems to have taken his time to carefully craft a story where the comedy is silly and the gut wretches take their toll. I didn’t quite need a tissue box by the end, but I can understand how the movie is designed to make you reach for one, while still giving your heart a little hug.
In Conclusion, The Descendants is a mainstream tearjerker with it’s fair share of indie quirks. Oscar bait? Sure. Except the bait tastes good enough to take a bite of, maybe not devour… but I don’t mind being reeled in.
Final Grade: B