Directed by Alexander Payne / Release (Limited): Nov 18, 2011 / R, 1 hr. 50 min.
Alexander Payne is probably best currently known for his work on 2004’s surprise hit, Sideways, which won several nods and awards, including an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Hopefully, his recognition is eclipsed by his latest effort, The Descendants, which stars George Clooney as a man whose wife is in a coma, who’s in the middle of a huge real estate deal, and who must now care for his 10 and 17-year-old daughters.
Except, that’s not really what the movie is about.
At the opening of the film, we hear Matt King’s voice (George Clooney) talking about the misconceptions people have about Hawaii. People who don’t live there may have the impression that it is a paradise, where people are constantly having some form of fun. However, that is not the case. King is currently in a hospital room doing some work as he watches over his comatose wife. It is at this point that the viewer must leave behind any misconceptions, especially those gleaned from the trailer, or from reviews (such as this one), or any other personal baggage.
It is important to do so, because going into this movie thinking that it is a drama, one might miss the tenderness of its comedic moments. If one thinks it’s a comedy, they may be off-put by the gravitas of multi-layered dramatic elements. And God forbid that one label this a dramedy – which is an insult to both genres.
This film is about death. It is about life. It is about land. It is about water. It is about fathers, and mothers, and love, and hate. It is about peace and forgiveness, and anger and confusion. And I am not using any of those terms loosely or in some hyperbolic fashion.
The plot withers around King’s relationship with his daughters (played by Shailene Woodley as Alex and newcomer Amara Miller as Scottie) as he copes with his wife’s coma. Early on, he also finds out that his wife had been cheating on him prior to her accident. He had not even an inkling of suspicion. All of this is happening as he is deliberating on a decision to sell land that has been passed down to his family for generations. Although all his cousins have a monetary stake on the deal, he is the sole trustee, so he is responsible for signing off on the deal. Each of these plot points intersect and dissolve into each other, but it isn’t till the last third of the film where they converge into heavy, yet tender moments of revelation.
But the truth of the film is in the story that is untold. It is in the subtle soundtrack that weaves in traditional Hawaiian music with mostly instrumental guitar tracks. It is in the character played by the land itself, supported by the cast of waves, vegetation, and weather. And it is in the moments when the main characters themselves feel helpless or hopeless.
Brilliant performances by the entire cast, especially Clooney and Woodley, only add to the meticulous care taken by Payne to give us a fair and honest glimpse of Hawaii. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say that. I’ve actually never been. Yet, I get the sensation that Payne really does get it.
Although the director is best known for Sideways, his best work (to date) is his short film, “14e arrondissement,” which was included in the compilation, Paris, Je T’Aime. In this segment, Carol (Margo Martindale) is a middle-aged woman who decides to travel to Paris, alone, after taking a course in French. She narrates her adventures in Paris as we get a glimpse of how terribly lonely she must be. As the short comes to a close, Carol sits on a park bench and views the people all around her, the life of the city. In that moment, she feels sadness and happiness all at once. But her sadness is not too deep, because this is life. And it is in that moment of epiphany that she learns to love Paris, because she feels that Paris also loves her.
There is a moment in The Descendants that is very reminiscent of this. However, there is much, much more at stake. Life is not wrapped up in a neat box with fancy wrapping paper and a red bow. It is sometimes very harsh and brutal. But thankfully, that is not all. There is a fine balance between damnation and redemption. Hopefully it is something that we can pass down to our descendants.
[I want to applaud Fox Searchlight for producing/distributing some of the finer films of our time in the last couple of years. Because of them, we’ve gotten The Tree of Life, Black Swan, 127 Hours, Never Let Me Go, The Wrestler, and many more. Kudos to them!]