Nothing just happens
By Edward Copeland
People tend to be described as dog people or cat people. New York people or L.A. people — you get the idea. When it comes to filmmakers, countless directors fall into that sort of categorizing where either you love their work or their movies just rub you the wrong way. I know many people who flat-out dislike the films of Alexander Payne whereas he hasn't disappointed me yet. The Descendants, Payne's first work on the big screen as a director/co-writer since the "14e arrondissement" segment in 2006's Paris, je t'aime and first feature since the sublime Sideways in 2004, doesn't break his streak. In fact, I think it could be Payne's finest film so far and it definitely delivers a role to George Clooney that allows the actor to give the best performance of his career.
Perhaps the secret to Payne's success can be put in two simple words: He reads. With the exception of Citizen Ruth, his first feature as a writer/director, all Payne's subsequent films have been adaptations of novels — not giant, well-known best sellers, mind you, but fiction that somehow crossed his path and seemed as if they'd transfer well into films. In a recent profile in The New York Times, Payne said that the reason he started to co-write his own screenplays was because when he began his career all the scripts that came his way didn't appeal to him. The Descendants began life as a well-reviewed 2007 novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings and marks the first Payne feature that the director didn't co-write with Jim Taylor (though Taylor does serve as a producer). Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, the other writers credited with Payne on the screenplay, both received their first feature writing credits, having worked primarily as actors.
Matt King (Clooney) makes a great living practicing law in paradise — or at least that's what many think when they hear the word Hawaii. Not everyone agrees, especially Matt King with everything he has on his plate. As he says in a voiceover early in the film, "Paradise can go fuck itself." Though King and his extended family of cousins bear little outward signs of being native Hawaiians, their ancestry stretches back to original Hawaiian royalty, giving them the rights to a huge tract of beautiful, untouched Hawaiian land that's their family has held in trust for eons. The trust expires in seven years and Matt somehow has become the trustee who makes the final call after a vote by the various cousins whether to hold on to the land or accept one of two competing offers that will make all the relatives rich.
The pre-scheduled family meeting has come at a most inopportune time for Matt as his wife, Elizabeth, suffers severe injuries in a boating accident that places her in a coma. Soon after, the doctor informs Matt that Elizabeth is in a persistent vegetative state and won't be coming back. According to the terms of her living will, Elizabeth didn't want any unusual measures taken to keep her alive and wants all life support turned off so her friends can have a chance to say goodbye before her funeral. Matt, who pretty much lives in a world of obliviousness, finds himself suddenly the main caretaker for his precocious and odd 10-year-old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller).
As he finds himself dealing with several incidents Scottie has caused at school and with her friends, he retrieves his 17-year-old daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) from the boarding school he and Elizabeth sent her to following drug problems. Alexandra still harbors a grudge against her mother about a fight they had over Christmas break that her father urges her to let go and Alex realizes that Matt has no idea what mother and daughter fought about and she fills him in — Elizabeth had been cheating on him with another man.
The screenplay, which deservedly won the Writers Guild Award for adapted screenplay last night, perfectly blends the comedy and pathos of all the characters' situations and the entire cast from the biggest roles to the smallest perform them with pitch-perfect aplomb. Among some of the performers who show up in small but quite effective roles are Beau Bridges as one of Matt's cousins, Robert Forster as Elizabeth's perpetually pissed father, Matthew Lillard as Elizabeth's lover and Judy Greer as his wife. You probably guess early on that the land trust decision and Matt's stepping into his role as a father and dealing with his dying wife's secrets will tie together, but they tie together quite naturally and without any gimmicks.
The Descendants also marks Payne's best use of visuals as a director. He especially finds some really unusual and unique framing built around Clooney's head — and I don't mean Clooney's usual handsome profile. No scene or shot seems extraneous and while the film provides plenty of laughs, the feeling it leaves you with is one of warmth and the credit for that really belongs to its four main characters.
The actor who hasn't been discussed much in all the praise showered upon The Descendants is Nick Krause who plays Sid, who Matt describes as being about "100 miles from smartsville." He appears to be a stoned-out teen whose presence never really gets explained but Alex insists that she needs him there for if her dad wants her to stay and help with Scottie. Sid's knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time balances out with an ability to define a situation accurately without fear of repercussions. One of the best tiny scenes come when Matt wanders in on Sid in the middle of the night and random talk reveals why Alex relates to Sid.
Amara Miller gives one of the better turns I've seen from someone playing a precocious 10-year-old. She manages to sound as if she's saying and doing things beyond her years without losing that essence of childhood that so often gets lost in the work of professional child actors. There isn't any of that sing-songy fakery that they often give off. You always believe she's a kid first.
Shailene Woodley emerges as the movie's real find as Alexandra, giving a fully rounded performance as Alex begins as cynical, caustic and shielded, angry at her mom, her dad and the world until she slowly develops into her father's co-conspirator in his desire to track down the man who cuckolded him. Her evolution from Matt's nemesis to his ally serves as the story's bridge.
Clooney stands out, but not because he's the biggest star but because Matt King gives him a different type of character to play than he ever has had the chance to portray before. Clooney never has turned in a bad performance, but far too often his parts have been ones that he simply slided by on his charm. We've never seen Clooney play someone as completely at sea as Matt King is. When Alex tells him that he hasn't got a clue, referring specifically to her mom's affair, she could be talking about anything. Matt even describes himself to another child's parent as "the understudy parent." He appears to do his job competently, but a parade of elephants could walk past his house and he might not notice. The arc of Matt regaining control of himself and connecting with his daughters drives The Descendants and taps acting power not seen from Clooney before.
It's a helluva coincidence that in the same year both Clooney here and his buddy Brad Pitt in Moneyball landed roles that stretched their abilities as actors and provided each with his best screen performance yet. In terms of lead actors, 2011 truly has been an embarrassment of riches. If I were an Oscar voter, I'd be horribly torn between Clooney, Pitt and Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. For a change, none of the nominees in that acting category is a joke and yet there still are countless others who would have been deserving of a slot.
As for The Descendants, I feel confident it should win adapted screenplay Sunday, but though I've been unable to see Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close or War Horse, I think it deserves the top prize as well.