Alexander Payne’s The Descendants (2011) – Blu-ray & DVD review
It takes a while for Payne and Clooney to enjoy hanging out, but the director’s softly-softly approach coaxes newfound vulnerability and warmth from his star.
(Alexander Payne, US, 2011)
There’s an inevitability about George Clooney working with Alexander Payne. No movie star of the modern era, bar his buddy Brad Pitt, has been so assiduous in working his way through the leftfield: David O. Russell, the Coen Brothers, Steven Soderbergh, Wes Anderson, Jason Reitman… Throughout he has remained defiantly Clooney-esque; even efforts to prise apart that charismatic shell (Solaris, say, or Up In The Air) have only been half-successful.
The Descendants, at first, feels as though Payne is merely the latest in a long line of great directors to make star vehicles for George. A frustrating first act unfurls almost entirely in voiceover, giving that silky voice plenty of exposure, while the emphasis on Clooney’s not-quite widower Matt King, forced to deal with his comatose wife and more-or-less estranged children, allows Clooney to furrow his brow and mope with big eyes in the kind of role that Will Smith does between blockbusters. When he announces, with a desperate lack of subtlety, that he regards his family as being as much of an archipelago as the Hawaiian islands where he lives, “connected but separate,” all bets are off. This is going to be a bad film, surely?
No. It’s just taken Payne – who hasn’t made a film since Sideways – a little longer to find his groove. And when he does, it’s actually Clooney who relaxes in a new way of doing things. Even in the star-studded likes of Ocean’s 11, there’s never been any doubt who the alpha-male is, but here Payne’s generosity puts Clooney as the cog in a lightly spun ensemble. While it bears unmistakable parallels with Payne’s About Schmidt, another film about a man in a fluster after tragedy strikes, Matt King is a man in the process learning to keep his family together rather than tear it apart. Clooney duly concedes defeat, and allows his co-stars to shine.
And The Descendants a much better film for Clooney being slightly out of his comfort zone – as King remarks at once point, “it’s better to give someone a little to do something, than a lot to do nothing.” Walking around with his two daughters and a stoned hanger-on (a sublime comedic performance from Nick Krause), Clooney relaxes into a comfortable middle-age, sad and cantankerous but kept young by the vitality of the youngsters, especially the superb Shailene Woodley as eldest daughter Alex, who becomes the friend and confidante to her father that he’d allowed his wife to stop being.
It’s a film about age, and the fact that, ultimately, age doesn’t matter because the end could come at any point – so you may as well enjoy life, something Matt has forgotten. This isn’t exactly groundbreaking material, but Payne’s eye for faces presents a vivid map of humanity, from Robert Forster’s stern, wizened father-in-law to Amara Miller’s pudgily innocent younger daughter, to Matt endlessly eccentric cousins (one of whom, randomly, is Twin Peaks’ Michael Ontkean in a wordless performance). When even the walk-ons have such character, Clooney knows he has to play this one different, drops the mugging the Coen let him indulge him in, and lets his face finally admit to being fiftysomething. An extraordinarily handsome fiftysomething, sure, but still a human one.
Meanwhile, having established the contrived parameters of King’s world – it just so happens his wife lies dying the same week he has to decide on the future of the ancestral home that’s been in his family for 150 years – Payne simply ignores the coincidence, treating it with wry bafflement. This is very much storytelling of the “let’s go with it” variety, worn as lightly as the impressive array of Hawaiian shirts on display. The plot wanders freely, safe in the knowledge that the dual deadline of his wife’s death and the legal shenanigans will take care of the third act, and allows Payne to relax and simply hang out with his characters.