The Descendants: Laughter is the Best Revenge
The Descendants opens with sunny shots of the mammoth mountains of Hawaii. What could better symbolize serenity, strength and stability? Except of course when they erupt, spewing flames and lava in a wanton tantrum of unchecked destruction. After all, they are volcanoes.
In his new film, director Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election) serves up the tempestuous story of a family who appears to have it all. Idyllic on the surface in their tasteful house with spreading lawn, their fissures run deep, splitting open with resounding cracks when least expected.
George Clooney is adept at portraying Matt King, the privileged scion in free fall. His wife in a coma from a speedboat accident, he is left to take care of their two daughters: Scottie on the verge of puberty, Alexander (Shailene Woodley) at the height of adolescence. It’s a big role for an absentee dad.
One mishap follows another as the story unfolds, but the distress is made bearable by the scintillating screenplay by Alexander Payne, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. With every heart-wrenching event comes some absurd twist that keeps us laughing. Unclear from the trailer, this movie is very funny. And full of surprises.
Robert Forster plays the grandfather who praises his unconscious daughter Elizabeth and chides Clooney for not doing enough for her. This sounds reasonable, the first time- if only he’d let it go. But comic relief appears in the form of the addled grandmother and Alexander’s clueless boyfriend Sid, who ends up with a black eye.
Payne even manages to wring humor out of the confrontation scene when Matt, with Alexander as aide-de-camp, confronts his wife’s lover. This scene, as well as the one in which the cuckolded wife visits Elizabeth in the hospital, is played with a smooth blend of pathos and playfulness. Like Ernst Lubitsch, Payne’s direction has developed a beautifully light touch, making even the sorriest situation palatable.
Woven through the film, another plot thread concerns the sale of a tract of pristine land, a sandy cove surrounded by hills. Entrusted by their ancestors to King and his cousins who live throughout the archipelago, this bit of paradise is subject to the usual dilemma: preservation vs. profit, keep it or sell it to developers. The decision rests ultimately with Matt, and like the rest of the story, the outcome is unpredictable.
Exhibiting the refreshing complexity of Payne's characters, Matt King is flawed but endearing. George Clooney's expressive face with its rich range of emotion tells all you need to know about King, how shaken he is by the state of his wife or the misbehaving of his daughters. The seasoned Clooney seems as solid and timeless as the mountains.
Some nice cinematic touches underscore the story, such as the voiceover of the television show talking about the movement of the earth’s plates, or the shot of the back of Clooney’s head which ends one scene and begins another.
The Descendants is a humane and poignant portrait of a modern American family, with all its warts and pimples showing. Peppering the film are shots of Hawaiian hills and skies, as well as the looming King ancestors gazing down from their framed portraits, suggesting the enduring nature of it all. No matter what their shape or size, no matter how painful or absurd, family ties (for better or for worse) will prevail.