Sunday, November 20, 2011
In a lot of ways The Descendants reminds me of Up in the Air, to the extent that if I didn’t know any better I would think they were directed by the same person. George Clooney is the star of both, obviously, and in both is trying to disappear into a real person. I’m not sure if either effort is entirely successful, but it seems unfair to hold Clooney’s stardom and the limits of our suspension of disbelief against him. Just as he did in Up in the Air, Clooney performs fantastically the mannerisms of a put-upon, imperfect man. You can never forget that he’s George Clooney, but he resists the temptation to do too much to get you to forget, if that makes sense. He masterfully underplays his role here as Matt King, a Hawaii lawyer descended from wealthy land barons. The film catches King just as he is being hit with conflict on two fronts. His family trust is set to lapse, and his more spendthrift relations are pressuring him to sell their vast land holding to developers and make them all rich. The second and more devastating problem is that his comatose wife is never going to wake up, and her will requires that he pull the plug.
King is forced to confront the idea of raising his two daughters on his own, which the film’s early scenes establish as no easy task. Ten-year-old Scotty is acting out at school, bullying other girls with nasty text messages and testing Matt’s boundaries at every turn. In light of his wife’s condition, Matt takes his older daughter Alexandra out of her expensive, prison-like boarding school, where she’d been exiled for drugs and alcohol use.
Shortly after Alexandra comes home she reveals a disturbing secret about her mother, one that changes everything for Matt. For the rest of the film Matt struggles to balance keeping it together, especially for Scotty’s sake, with letting his emotions take over and lead him to do questionable things. Along the way he relies too heavily on Alexandra, and becomes obsessed with confronting a person from his wife’s past. Clooney gets to play a wide range of emotions in this movie, from quivering rage to draining sadness, and he differentiates the finer distinctions along the way expertly.
The rest of the cast is equally naturalistic, despite not being given quite the same opportunity to showcase it as Clooney. Shailene Woodley is thoroughly believable as the troubled Alexandra. It’s a performance that belies the actress’s young age, and promises great things to come from Woodley, who presently stars on ABC Family in The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Judy Greer has only three short scenes, but her final one is a tremendous display of conflicting emotions, played at just the right level of pathos. Matthew Lillard, Robert Forster, and Beau Bridges are also excellent. The Descendants is buoyed by its reliance, outside Clooney, on character actors and real people. (The surfer Laird Hamilton has a small role as a beachcomber, for example.) Even the film’s least believable character, Alexandra’s tagalong friend Sid, is given some depth to escape the limits of mere comic relief.
Two years ago Up in the Air came out a little early for Oscar season, and its front-runner status was short-lived, as it disappeared among the flashier films. Whether or not the same fate befalls The Descendants, the movie and its star are to be commended for playing it straight and crafting a real and relatable movie for adults. This feels like the kind of movie that will get better with repeated viewings, and how many movies can you say that about?
P.S. I couldn’t find a spot to include it above, but it absolutely floors me that one of the three credited screenwriters for The Descendants is Jim Rash, aka Community’s Dean Pelton. I’m now really pulling for The Descendants to win Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars.