The Descendants


Written by Alex Marx
23 Monday 23rd January 2012

Matt’s voiceover at the start of the film dismisses some preconceptions that we might have about his life.  “My friends think that just because I live in Hawaii, I live in paradise… That we’re all just kicking back, sipping Mai Tais… Are they insane? Our families are just as screwed up. Our heartbreaks are just as painful…  Paradise can go fuck itself!” He also informs us that, up until recently, he has always been “the back-up parent, the understudy”, but now that his wife, Elizabeth, lies in a coma after a boating accident, he is being forced to engage with his two daughters, seventeen year old Alexandra (an impressive Shailene Woodley) and ten year old Scottie (Amara Miller), who are both reacting to the accident in a way that Matt is ill-equipped to understand, let alone deal with.  Alexandra insists that her moronic friend Sid (Nick Krause) be constantly by her side, as she’ll be “a lot more civil with him around”. Meanwhile, Scottie dresses up in her elder sister’s underwear and throws garden furniture into the pool in a series of desperate bids for her father’s attention. 

The plot thickens when, after an argument with Alexandra during which Matt tells her to grow up, she reveals that his wife has been cheating on him and had plans for imminent divorce. Matt probes her further but, unable to gather the identity of his wife’s lover, he grabs a nearby pair of shoes and sets off at a run to a friend’s house, in order to interrogate them. However, his chosen footwear is not designed for speed or grace, and so what follows is a moment of Payne doing what he does best; extreme pathos undercut by absurd humour. It is brilliant to see George Clooney, cinematic short-hand for smooth and sexy, in tears of pain and rage, slapping down the street in a Hawaiian shirt and plastic sandals. Even when he arrives at his friend’s house, he has to wait for him to finish off a domestic row with his wife, before he is able to cross examine them. 

Matt discovers that his wife’s lover, Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), stands to make a fat commission on the sale of Matt’s land.  Matt now has a choice, to allow the deal to go ahead, and thereby directly benefit Brian, or to pull the plug and disappoint his extended family (largely represented in the film by a fantastic Beau Bridges). But first, he is adamant that he find and confront Brian with the reality of his wife’s situation. Unfortunately, this section of the film loses a little bit of the tension that has been established. There is some more physical clowning from Clooney, and a nice scene between Matt and Brian’s totally oblivious wife on the beach, but we are left waiting too long for the reckoning between the two men to come. When it does, the confrontation isn’t the moment of catharsis we have been waiting for, as Matt realises too late what Alexandra has already told him; that he has “way bigger fish to fry”, like saving the ruins of his family and their collective inheritance. 

The final portion of the film is very well handled though and packs a real emotional punch; watching this family, that Matt has earlier described as an archipelago, because they are “all connected, but slowly drifting apart”, finally unify in their grief is very affecting. As Matt surveys the acreage from the top of a mountain, we get some stunning landscape shots from cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, perhaps suggesting  that the only difference between paradise and a living hell is your perspective. The final scene of the film plays out in silence; the yellow blanket that had been on Elizabeth’s hospital bed is shared by Matt, Alex and Scottie as they snuggle up for a night of watching TV. It is in this moment that we recognise what Payne is consistently driving at in his films; that it is often the darkest moments in life that force us back together and teach us to love. This is the first of his to deal so explicitly with family, and it is reminiscent of last year’s multi-award winning The Kids Are All Right. Indeed, this onus on family lends the film more universal appeal than any of Payne’s previous output, and also places it firmly in the running for Best Film at this year’s Academy Awards. Of course, having George Clooney in the lead role, giving perhaps his most vulnerable and nuanced performance to date, might help a bit too. Slightly flabby at nearly two hours, and a tiny bit too neat in parts, the film is nevertheless a stunning achievement in striking a balance between comedy and tragedy, and it fully deserves the plaudits it has already received, as well as all those coming to it.

The Decendants will be released in the UK on 27 January.

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