'Descendants': One of 2011's Best
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
A movie as good as "The Descendants" is both a gift to the weary film reviewer and a kind of burden. I know, I know: How so? The new film, co-written and directed by Alexander Payne, his first feature since 2004's much-acclaimed "Sideways," is such an exceptional pleasure to experience, so assured at every turn and so humane and engaged and absorbing, that even as a critic (and I admit I can only really speak for myself here, but indulge me and play along, please) is blown away by how well it's working, he or she wishes most ardently to turn off the analytic apparatus and just melt into the viewing experience. It's the kind of comedic drama, or dramatic comedy, that one just wants to settle in with, so seemingly effortlessly does it carry one along. It works like a charm, that is, to the extent that one's critic self wants to resist the urge to break down why it's working.
A précis of the movie is hardly apt to explain -- or, for that matter, spoil -- its magic. Based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings and retooled by Payne from an initial script by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, it's a two-pronged narrative concerning Matt King (George Clooney), an affluent Honolulu lawyer who's about to maybe go from well-off to actually rich, if his immediate family can agree to terms about how to sell a packet of unspoiled island property that's been in a trust for years.
But Matt also has a more immediate, and traumatic, crisis to deal with: Elizabeth, his wife and the mother of his two daughters (one a troubled teen, the other an increasingly troubled preteen), is in a coma after a boating accident. Her living will has specified that she be taken off life support after a certain period. The movie opens with Matt promising in voice-over that when "you" get out of this, he's going to be a better husband, better father, better everything. It soon becomes very doubtful that the wife's going to come out of it. And as he's continually, albeit good-heartedly, fumbling the ball as far as his girls are concerned, he learns that Elizabeth had been having an affair. Now he's looking at life as a single father, and seeking both closure and something like payback. For the latter, he's got to make some seemingly unlikely allies, including his surly/sassy older daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), and her sort of doofus quasi-boyfriend, Sid (Nick Krause).
Early on in the film, in voice-over, Matt himself addresses a potential viewer objection along the lines of, "If you're actually living in Hawaii, how bad can it be?" Over expertly judged shots of Honolulu that make it look like a much brighter and just slightly cleaner iteration of a typical American city, he avows that the state is not "paradise." The film as a whole holds that paradise, and its inverse, are where you make it, and that either state is transitory at best, at least during our mortal existences. Pretty heavy stuff! But the movie doesn't whack you in the head with it. Rather, the wisdom and compassion of this movie is simply woven through every single scene, every single shot, from Alexandra's muted underwater howl of grief in the neglected swimming pool after her dad breaks the news to her about her mom to Matt's unwittingly antic moves in sort of stalking his wife's lover, a real-estate hotshot whose situation brings some further complications to Matt's desire for easy, satisfying resolutions. None of which are forthcoming, of course.
The film's pacing (the editor is Kevin Tent) feels as effortlessly achieved as breathing. All of the actors, from the amazing Clooney to Woodley to Amara Miller as her ingenuous (or is she?) younger sister, to Robert Forster's grim, nasty father-in-law, to Judy Greer and Matthew Lillard as character's you'd be better off discovering on your own, all the way through to Patricia Hastie, who knocks it out of the park, as they say, playing Elizabeth, a character who is comatose in all but a single shot, bolster the spell of genuine life and emotion unfolding in front of your eyes.
Payne has been criticized in the past before for making snide satirical points at the expense of his characters and their sentimentalities; I've not entirely agreed with those criticisms, but I doubt that those who've made them will find any such fault with "The Descendants." While you couldn't call Payne's eye and tone here entirely uncritical, I think the occasional wry skepticism inherent in its overall perspective, which for lack of a better word here I'll call "humanist," is perfectly judged at every turn here. It's one of the many things that makes "The Descendants" such a cinematic joy. It's a movie I'm looking forward to revisiting many times, more than a few with my analysis apparatus switched off.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.