One of the great dilemmas, I find, in composing film reviews, is exactly how large of a part I, the reviewer, should play in the text. Am I to objectively review it, coolly and at a distance, as a supposed professional should do? Or, since cinema is a personal art medium, meant to provoke a reaction, should I make each and every film a personalized, individual experience, and every review a narrative reflective of that?
Being the fairly passionate individual that I am, I naturally lean towards the second option. The fact that I bring it up in this review is indicative of that. And another strong argument for this argument is my reaction to Alexander Payne’s new work “The Descendants”.
I am a Hawaiian. My white father (a “haole”, as natives call it) married my Pearl City-native mother 23 years ago, and have made it a point to get us out to that state as much as they possibly can. The result is my fairly deep knowledge of Hawaiian culture, and if not knowledge then a sentimental passion. All the memories I hold there and will continue to make there carried over into my viewing of “The Descendants”, set on the Hawaiian islands. That alone would have made it an emotional trip for me, but the fact that the film itself is a raw, messy, unfiltered mess of emotions turned something poignant into something transformative. This is an amazing work.
“The Descendants” continues George Clooney’s untouchable run as the premier, capital-M movie star of this generation. He plays Matt King, a man whose family is forced to sell a fairly unique generational heir-loom — 250,000 acres of premium Ka’aui real estate. All the while, he’s juggling trying to keep his troubled daughters’ heads above water as his wife lay in a coma that, his doctors say, she probably won’t ever wake up from. When his elder daughter, Alex, casually drops the revelation that prior to the coma she was cheating for quite some time, things really spiral out of control.
In a world soaked with animated films, sequels, films based on toys and films made to sell toys, experiences like “The Descendants” are hard to come by. It’s a film without much flash or pizzazz to its direction, simply a faith that we, the audience, can connect with and be moved by the characters’ experiences. It works. Writer-director Alexander Payne has been biding his time since 2004’s “Sideways”, and working with such emotional material as this, I can see why.
“The Descendants”, like all of Payne’s work, strikes an uncanny balance between the humorous and the heartbreaking. It’d be a crime to undersell just how funny Clooney, his daughters, and Alex’s imbecile boyfriend Sid are together. But at the same time, a lot of the humor stems from the imperfections and flaws these characters carry with them, giving every laugh a wounded resonance, bordering on discomfort.
It almost seems redundant at this point to praise Clooney — I feel like every year he drops a performance or two labelled as Oscar-worthy, (“Up in the Air”, “Michael Clayton”, this year’s own “Ides of March”) but it’s only because he’s willing to dig deeper and take on greater challenges than any of his contemporaries. This may be the first film I’ve seen where the guy actually begins to show his age — Clooney de-glamourized, if you will.
But where “The Descendants” really surprised me were the performances of his family. Clooney’s younger daughter, Scottie, serves as both the film’s comic relief and sense of purity. It seems everyone in this film is damaged but her, although her profanity-laden one-liners certainly suggest otherwise. The pothead tag-along in the family, Alex’s boyfriend Sid, is hysterical. Scenes where he interacts with his elders are among the funniest of the year. But this being an Alexander Payne film, he too gets an exchange later in the film that strips us of our assumptions of his character.
But what may be the finest performance of the film is Shailene Woodley as Matt’s hard-partying daughter, Alex herself. She takes what could have been a whiny, one-note character and infuses her with life — yes, sarcasm and sass, but also warmth and humor, grace and intelligence. One scene where she learns her mother’s condition and screams furiously underwater in a pool is unforgettable.
And Hawaii in this film — I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect representation. It’s set more in the suburbs of the islands rather than the postcard-esque vistas, and is a superb, but most importantly accurate realization of an amazing place. Simply put, “The Descendants” is one of the most unique, touching American films released in the time since I began reviewing. Through the eyes of one of the most glamorous men on the planet, it faces some very ugly truths dead in the eye — truths about dysfunction, jealousy, family, and how the three will always to some extent be intertwined. A