George Clooney is one of the most prolific Hollywood stars. As either director or actor, his films come quick and fast, and are never uninteresting. The Descendants, however, Indie auteur Alexander Payne’s slice-of-life picture that stars Clooney as a stressed out Hawaii lawyer, is more than merely interesting. With a few acting revelations, a perfect tonal blend of comedy and drama, and some sprightly island flavor, Clooney and Payne’s collaboration is always entertaining, often wise, and sincerely heartfelt.
The first shot is a close up of a pretty blonde woman. Accompanied by ocean spray and motor noises, she sits pleasurably on a speedboat. The shot fades too soon to see how the ride turns out. Alas, in the next scene she’s lying in a hospital bed, pale as a ghost, mouth ajar, lips cracked—in a coma (I guess it didn’t go so well). Her husband Matt King (Clooney) sits by her side. In voice over he explains that his wife, Elizabeth, had an accident, and although he lives in Hawaii, his life is not a permanent vacation. On top of Elizabeth’s condition, Matt is the trustee to a large, unspoiled plot of beachfront property that’s been in his family all the way back to King Kamehameha. The land’s worth millions, and it is his responsibility to choose a worthy buyer.
Matt and Elizabeth have two daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller). The former’s a surly adolescent who was shipped off to boarding school. The latter’s a toilet mouthed pre-pubescent who can’t seem to stay out of trouble at school. Someone I saw The Descendants with pointed out that George Clooney was playing Steve Carell. There are apparent Dan In Real Life similarities—mostly in the outnumbered-dad scenario as well as Matt’s deer in headlights expressions and middle-aged-schlub dorkiness. But the major difference, though, is that Carell is about as commanding on screen as a lamb. Clooney, when need be, has a lion’s fangs. Upon hearing that his wife was two-timing him with some unknown chump, those fangs come out gleaming. But Clooney is too seasoned a pro to play any emotion too forcefully; he uses the anger against his wife and her lover as a way of covering up his devastation over her betrayal. Matt and the kids, along with Alexandra’s surfer-dude “friend” Sid, go on an expedition, searching for this mysterious other man.
One of the film’s most fascinating dramatic propellants is the question of what Matt will do if he ever finds this guy. Will he give him a bloody nose? Will he ruin his life by exposing the affair? Or will he just give him the lowdown on Elizabeth and move on? Clooney plays Matt with such a complexity of personality that it’s hard to pin him down. He’s too nice of a guy to do anything sinister yet too hurt to just whip up some daiquiris and make amends.
Because the film is highly character driven, Payne understands that the camera’s most essential utility is to frame the actors and let them act. Clooney usually plays well-dressed studs; here he’s kind of a square (even Emmett in O Brother, Where Art Thou? couldn’t get enough Palmade). It’s the closest he’ll come to playing an everyman, I presume. But the performance goes beyond dressing down. It’s about finding the vulnerable in the everyday—about dealing with life’s tough situations as best you can. The most surprisingly great performance is that of Shailene Woodley (TV’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager). She may be playing the typical angst-ridden teenage daughter, but she gives the character tremendous emotional depth. Alexandra’s the one who caught her mom red handed in the first place. She’s the one who confronted her about it. She’s the one who’s had to keep such a terrible secret. In many ways, her mother betrayed her as well. Woodley, precociously, delivers these intricacies from the inside out. Under Payne’s guidance, she understands that those skeletons are the forces driving her character’s intolerable behavior. It’s a mature and nuanced turn from a novice screen actress.
And to battle the stagnancy that hampers many character studies, Payne keeps the plot moving, adding new layers and exposing new information. The story is set up like a mystery. The plot keeps getting thicker and the stakes keep getting higher. Does this hidden adulterer have something to do with Matt’s land deal? What if Elizabeth never wakes up? Should Matt and Alexandra let Scottie know the truth about her mother? One of the film’s most brilliant gestures is giving personality, and indeed treachery, to someone sleeping in a hospital bed hooked up to life support. How can someone so harmless be causing so much harm?And it all goes down in Hawaii no less—a supposed paradise, the land of surfing, Piňa Coladas, snazzy hotels, and no worries. Scored to a number of spirited island tunes, the film has a contrapuntal kick: paradise is a grand illusion. An elegiac, but still incredibly funny stroll through Hawaii’s breathtaking locales, The Descendants, in all its charm and heartbreak, emphasizes forgiveness, family bonds and the idea that new beginnings are never easy—even in Hawaii. Mahalo!