Oct 18, 2011
NYFF 2011: The Descendants
I'm a big fan of Alexander Payne, a smart, independent-minded American filmmaker, in my view, an heir to great satirists like Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges.
His movies are about regular Americans and the messes they get into: Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, and the most heartbreaking segment in Paris Je T'aime. If Citizen Ruth and Election were more broadly satirical, Payne has been moving into more Chekhovian territory with his last three films. Even though his humor at the expense of his characters may be mordant, he is never mean-spirited or contemptuous of them, like, for instance, Todd Solondz or Noah Baumbach. His movies have great empathy for regular Americans who try to live their complicated emotional lives as best they can.
Payne doesn't have a flamboyant cinematic style, his movies about plain people look rather plain, but he does have an inimitable tone: the language of his characters is precise, hilarious, and peppered with regionalisms, and some of them, always deeply flawed, like Tracy Flick in Election and Miles and his friend Jack in Sideways, are unforgettable, not to mention total Oscar bait. His stories are full of comedy and heartbreak. That perfect balance between pain and humor is not easy to get right, and Payne has it down better than any other American filmmaker working today. He is a humorist and a humanist.
If Sideways explored the way in which grown men can behave like children, The Descendants is about a man who has to be mature enough to raise his kids by himself. George Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian lawyer whose wife is in a coma after a boating accident and now he has to take care of two daughters, one aged ten (Amara Miller) and a rebellious teenager (Shailene Woodley). He is in the middle of finalizing the sale of some pristine Hawaiian land to developers and has no clue on how to raise his kids. This could be the premise for a stale TV show, but on top of everything, King learns some damning truths about his wife that send him reeling in pain. This is a bittersweet, funny, poignant film about marriage, love, death, infidelity and, especially, about family. Family can be a pain in the ass, but you better hang on to it, because it's the most important thing you have. (Lots of arty movies with a "family is all you've got" motif this year, including The Tree of Life, Melancholia, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Shame).
The casting of Clooney as a clueless dad is as unconventional as the casting of Jack Nicholson as the most timid and conformist of Mid-westerners in About Schmidt. Clooney, sporting a bad haircut and Hawaiian shirts galore, is solid and believable as a Hawaiian lawyer, clueless dad and a man who takes some unexpected emotional punches. As in Syriana and Michael Clayton, Clooney does competence in pain well, and here he delivers a deadpan, relaxed and very natural performance.
The entire cast is pitch perfect, including a scene-stealing turn by Robert Forster as Clooney's hardass father-in-law. Some of the movie borders on cliche, like the surfer dude teenage boyfriend (a very sweet and funny Nick Krause) who tags along with the Kings on their adventure, but Payne and his co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash dive head on into apparent cliche, and subvert it. There are no easy pieties and pat sentiments in this movie. Death brings chaos, anger, and pain, and yet humans are still funny. It's no wonder that Payne says he loves the Italian neorealists: he has a similar temperament.
What I loved most about this movie, besides the fact that Payne found an all-Hawaiian music soundtrack that doesn't drive the audience crazy, is that the movie does not shy away from what death looks and feels like to those who remain. People may have their rituals and say their goodbyes and talk to a comatose woman who may not be listening, but her death is presented without adornment or syrupy euphemism, and so are their feelings, in all their misery, frustration and grace.