Alexander Payne’s latest directorial offering, The Descendants, is based on the freshman novel of the same name by Hawaiian writer Kaui Hart Hemmings. It’s been receiving rave reviews Stateside, garnering plenty of awards and multiple Oscar nominations. And once again, like Payne’s previous megahit, 2004’s Sideways, which starred Paul Giamatti, The Descendants is a beautiful observed comedy of American manners, albeit one that might be a little too slickly manipulative to really deserve the ‘indie’ mantle it so clearly aims for. Yet for those willing to leave their cynicism by the door, its delights will unfold as gently as the deceptively subtle pace the film demands.
The plot revolves around an Hawaiian lawyer, Matt King (George Clooney), who is sole trustee to a hugely valuable area of beachfront real estate, which has been in his family for generations – an untouched paradise of virgin land ripe for development, but which new legislation is forcing the Kings to sell. As Clooney and his extensive collection of laidback cousins, the titular ‘descendants’, genially debate over whom to sell their valuable inheritance to, Matt King’s world is struck by tragedy when his wife is seriously injured in a boating accident and left in a terminal coma, forcing him to emotionally reconnect with his two daughters and look after them more closely than he has done in years.
At first we’re led to believe that King has been an excessively bad father. His marriage has certainly been failing – a fact he admits during an unnecessary opening voiceover. But we soon discover that his only crime has been to be a workaholic trying to do the right thing by the island paradise he lives in. Indeed, possibly the film’s biggest flaw is the heavy emphasis on the failings and foibles of the comatose wife, whose affair sparks much of the emotional centre of the film, when Clooney embarks on a Sideways like odyssey to find her lover, while proving himself to actually be not a bad father, but possibly the greatest father and man (and comical runner) who’s ever lived. It’s dangerous ground, this laying out of the wife’s shortcomings without ever allowing her side of the story to really come out (besides third party anecdotes). Yet the film gets away with it largely thanks to twenty-year-old Shailene Woodley’s balancing female performance as the eldest daughter, Alex, who plays out her grief and anger over her unresolved mother-daughter relationship with impressive skill.
Director Alexander Payne has been accused of overtly masculine sympathies in his work before, at the expense of his female characters. Council for the prosecution might try and present both Sideways and About Schmidt as a case (of Merlot) in point, although fans could rightly beg to differ. Despite veering in the direction of allowing men their sins, but not the women, The Descendants is an even more well rounded, deeper and more satisfying film than anything Payne has done before, thanks largely to two terrific performances at its centre, as well as the awe inspiring beauty of the Hawaiian archipelagos, and a neatly crafted script. But it still boils down to these brass tacks: if you don’t like Clooney, stay away. If you do, this is pure Clooney class, with the man at the top of his game.
Review in partnership with The Duke of York Cinema