Alexander Payne, director of The Descendants, simply has to make more films. Off all the takeaways from this wonderful film, this is the probably the biggest. The Descendants is not a perfect film, but an intelligent, insightful film on a medium scale is always a welcome.
The story is just one man’s story, and it’s kept appropriately sized. It’s not a GRAND STATEMENT, nor is it a grand melodramatic tragedy on a lonely, individual scale. (Insert huge sigh of gratitude here to Payne.) George Clooney plays Matt King, a middle-aged man, a father, a husband, a lawyer, a businessman, and a member of a fairly normal extended family. He will be nominated for Best Actor, and he continues to grow in subtlety and depth. I’ve never been moved by Clooney’s acting before, but I was here (in the perfectly calibrated goodbye scene near the end of the film). Yet he is still doing the occasional bobble-head thing and that sporadic halting, hiccup kind of delivery that approximates realism without living it.
The real acting find here is Shailene Woodley, who is justly earning praise and recognition for her turn as Matt’s daughter Alexandra. The role could easily have been interpreted as The Generic Angry Older Teenage Daughter. Happily, it’s not, though Alexandra almost starts that way. Then her situation and personality unfurl, and we see a young woman who is her own personality, and is angry for a reason. Her character is a specific person with her own thoughts and feelings; Woodley avoids clichés at every turn. She’s a joy to watch here, and if this performance is any indication of the future, we all have a lot to look forward to.
The film has a great sense of place that reminded me of The Constant Gardener, another film that made you feel as if you were getting to know a place as well as the plot and people. Right away we are told that the setting is not going to be the tropical paradise Hawaii we would normally expect. We’re treated to beaches and mountains and vistas, but they are all a part of the world of the characters. Hawaii stays a setting, never competing with the actors by being a character in and off itself.
The acting is uniformly good throughout, with nary a false note. There are several scenes that go right to the edge of humor or believability, but most stay in bounds and only color, rather than tear at, the world that Payne’s created. Nick Krause as Sid, Alexandra’s friend and steadying influences, threatens at first to become a human version of the “surfer dude-ish” turtle in Finding Nemo, but he eventually goes from a joke to a person. Judy Greer as the wife of an unfaithful man, however, goes too far in her scene with the woman who had an affair with her husband, and a film majoring in modulation tips into comic silliness for a moment. Happily, it passes quickly.
The casting of Beau Bridges as Cousin Hugh is perhaps understandable—we need to like this guy and sympathize with him to some extent as he works through some touchy business with Matt. But a recognizable star introduced at a relatively late point in the film almost breaks the delicately real world that’s been created. Having your mind go “Oh, it’s Beau Bridges—and look at that hair” certainly can take you away from the film for a moment.
All told, though, The Descendants is a grown-up film for grown-ups that is not an adventure, a joyride, nor a special-effects-laden rollercoaster. While what it’s not is especially appreciated right now, what it is is even better—a sad, funny, real, complicated, intelligent film about people who are sad, funny, real, complicated and intelligent.