Friday, December 2, 2011

The Descendants: Doing the right thing

The Descendants (2011) • View trailer for The Descendants
4.5 stars. Rating: R, for profanity and coarse sexual references
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.2.11

One of Janis Ian’s typically insightful songs, released on a 1978 album, is called “Silly Habits.” In part, it goes:

I used to say “I love you,”
But one day I forgot.
Silly habits mean a lot.
Matt (George Clooney) and his daughters — Alexandra (Shailene Woodley,
left) and Scottie (Amara Miller) — take one final, lingering look at the
unspoiled family land soon to be turned into a beach resort by the
highest bidder.

Some relationships explode in passion and fury; many simply fade away. Small, thoughtful gestures — spontaneous acts, so lovingly granted in the early days — fall victim to increasingly busy schedules or diverging interests. Impulsive cards, flowers or teddy bears. The promise to always have breakfast together. A book or new CD recently commented upon: not on a birthday or some other holiday, but just because.

We initially register these missed opportunities: pangs of guilt, mental promises to do better. Eventually, though, even the regret and intent get lost in the shuffle.

Then, one day — a day seemingly like any other — we look across the dining table and see a stranger. In that moment, the revelation strikes: True intimacy has been lost.

The Descendants opens as Matt King (George Clooney) has just such an epiphany. It’s a wake-up call; he suddenly, genuinely understands that business affairs have pulled him away from his wife and family. In his own words, he acknowledges being the “back-up parent” to their two daughters. He resolves to change course: correct the heading and do better.

He makes this promise as his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), lies in a hospital bed, submerged within a deep coma: the result of a boating accident.

Alexander Payne’s previous film, 2004’s warm, whimsical and bittersweet Sideways, probed and dissected friendship and courting rituals with the precision with which its protagonist extolled the similar complexities of his favorite wines. Payne and co-scripter Jim Taylor shared a well-deserved Academy Award for their effort; Payne also garnered a nomination as director.

Now, seven years later — apparently not one to be hurried — Payne has returned to the director’s chair for The Descendants. He shares scripting duties this time with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash; they have adapted the 2007 book by Hawaiian-born Kaui Hart Hemmings, who based this debut novel on her earlier short story, “The Minor Wars.”

The Hawaiian setting is as much a character as the fractured King family and their friends and relatives; Payne understands this, and many scenes — particularly many brittle exchanges of dialogue — are amplified or given counterpoint by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s lush vistas of (mostly) unspoiled Hawaiian land.

This land actually is a significant plot point. Matt’s missionary ancestors who came to the islands were financially and culturally progressive; one even married a Hawaiian princess, making Matt a royal descendant and one of the state’s largest landowners. Indeed, stewardship of this property, along with the responsibilities of his own legal profession, bear the blame for his absentee husbanding and parenting duties.

The Kings own some of the last priceless virgin parcels of tropical beach; Matt is sole guardian of a land trust which — due to various legal complications — is scheduled to expire in seven years. Various King cousins have been gathering for regular meetings, courting competing bids from developers anxious to build hotels and golf courses along this unspoiled inlet.

These extended relatives, while superficially polite, smell impending wealth with the rapacious hunger of a shark tracking a blood scent. Clooney, in often mordant voice-overs, makes sage, snarky observations about the group dynamic during these meetings; these are the scripted lines we come to cherish, as this story progresses.

The irony, of course, is that while Matt may be impressively astute in business matters, he’s virtually helpless in the face of his two wayward daughters: precocious 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and rebellious 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, recognized from TV’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager).

Both girls swear like dockworkers: explosively and with coarse, sexually charged language. Alexandra does it spitefully; Scottie imitates her older sister, scarcely caring if she doesn’t understand the words. Matt, shocked by each outburst, can’t imagine which part of each transgression to address first. Clooney’s parentally paralyzed expressions are hilarious, albeit with an edge.

Alexandra perceives this indecision for what it is; she’s sharply accurate when she accuses her father of being clueless. With respect to many, many things, as it turns out.

The story’s momentum turns on the news, delivered by sympathetic doctors, that Elizabeth won’t pull out of the coma. Since she left a medical directive, she’ll soon be removed from life-support. Matt recognizes the responsibility to notify family and friends, so that they might say goodbye; he enlists Alexandra’s help, if only to watch over the increasingly forlorn Scottie.

The issue of Alexandra’s hostility toward her mother — the girl, a recovering drug addict, had been shipped off to a tony private school — cues a fresh revelation that further rocks Matt’s world. Surprisingly, this new crisis bridges the divide between him and Alexandra: United in a fresh purpose, they set out on this mournful, somewhat haphazard island-hopping mission.

The format thus becomes established and familiar: This is a road trip of discovery, where the journey itself is far more important than the destination. Although Matt cannot imagine life without Elizabeth, there’s no question that her absence — and the crisis it has precipitated — has brought an unusual sense of relief, and the chance to re-define poorly chosen roles.

We see, in Clooney’s haunted, expressive features, that Matt perceives this: recognizes it and simultaneously is shamed by it. What price, clarity?

In his more serious roles — Michael Clayton, Up in the Air — Clooney has demonstrated a fondness and talent for impassive, tightly wound characters at a crossroads. These men stand beneath storm clouds of loneliness, while smiling amiably and insisting that all’s right with the world. They’re control freaks suddenly paralyzed by an absence of control in areas of their lives that no longer can be concealed or compartmentalized.

Clooney truly nails Matt’s helpless indecision: the guilty, flickering gaze that cannot hold; the desperation that drives him to ask advice from his own sullen teenage daughter, and then from the oddly cheerful young man (Nick Krause, as Sid) she insists on having at her side, even during intimate family moments. Unknowingly, of course, Matt has done the right thing: Displaying such vulnerability, acknowledging helplessness, allows Alexandra to view her father as a human being in need, rather than as a disengaged authority figure.

But Payne doesn’t exploit Clooney solely for his dramatic chops. Although Matt’s hospital bedside confessions and tantrums are deeply emotional — as are his game attempts to connect with his daughters — he also has his impulsively crazy side. Such hilariously poignant acts — charging through the neighborhood while trying to run in Hawaii’s ubiquitous sandals, spying on somebody from behind a tall hedge — are made even funnier by Clooney’s wide-eyed frenzy.

We expect this of Clooney; he’s a pro. Woodley is the surprise, as she matches him, scene for scene. She nails all the telling little gestures of crisis: Alexandra takes shaky breaths, closes her eyes, hunches as if awaiting a blow that never comes. Better still, though, is Alexandra’s awakening: maturity struggling to surface through the muck of reflexive teenage spite.

Young Miller, in her acting debut, has similarly strong scenes as Scottie. At first merely sullen, Scottie eventually softens into her defenseless 10-year-old self; the change is heartbreaking, and one wonders what Miller is thinking, as she sells her character’s most challenging scene.

Krause, initially dismissed as comic relief, shames our snap judgment after revealing the perceptive insight that Sid conceals beneath his easygoing exterior. Robert Forster is memorable as Elizabeth’s bitter, angry father; Beau Bridges blends his goofy smile and flinty gaze as Matt’s (deceptively) laid-back Cousin Hugh. The always excellent Judy Greer, finally, makes a late but significant entry as Julie Speer, a chance encounter whose presence upsets what has become Matt’s rather unusual undertaking.

Payne handles these characters with warmth, wisdom and sharp observation. He understands that people in crisis are fascinating, particularly as they try to do the right thing while navigating wholly unfamiliar territory. The resulting film is poignant, sad, illuminating and funny: its many moods amplified by a score that blends melancholy island chants with gentle slack-key guitar interludes.

Payne may not make many films, but when the results are this polished, who can complain?

1 comment:

  1. I have never heard of this but it sounds great. I love George Clooney and his work.