Hawaii. Land of the Lost, land of palm trees and black sand beaches, spam and shave ice, natives and haole. In The Descendants, a family whose lineage in the islands goes back for generations (but looks about as haole as Gwynneth Paltrow in Micronesia) deals with changes within and without the nuclear family. As a man who must figure out how to go on when his wife is diagnosed with an untreatable brain injury, George Clooney gives a performance that will surely have the Academy sitting up and taking notice.
Clooney delivers what is quite possibly the performance of his career, and yes, I’ve seen Up In The Air and The Ides of March. Beautifully understated, Matt King is a man who, like many of director Alexander Payne’s protagonists, has yet to discover what it is to be a fully grown responsible adult. Matt King has been coasting from business meeting to business meeting, figuring that it was enough to provide for his family. When he has to step up to the plate and be there emotionally for his two daughters, it’s uncharted territory. And Clooney lets you see what it’s like to be someone who has never been asked to be fully present for anything in his life (or at least has never gotten around to doing so, ever). His Matt is clueless, angry, bewildered and frozen with fear of the unknown, and it’s a brilliant performance.
Shailene Woodley (The Secret Life of the American Teenager) plays Matt’s daughter Alexandra, and the chemistry she has with Clooney and Amara Miller (as Matt’s youngest daughter Scottie) is thoroughly believable. Alex has taken to self-medicating to keep her distance from the pain of seeing her parents’ relationship implode, and as she surfances from her stupor, her pain and yearning for real connection with her family is palpable. Judy Greer (13 Going On 30, The Hebrew Hammer — what? It’s one of my favorite movies. No, you stop it) plays the wife of the man that Matt’s wife was having an affair with. Got that? Ah, you get in the swing of it as the story unfolds. But the main point is Greer gives a wonderful performance that many may write off as “too easy”. However, overlook her nuanced portrayal and you’ll miss a performance that would have been a walk-on with a less talented actress. With Greer it’s a breath of fresh air, and a look at how the wreckage of Matt’s wife’s life has affected those outside the fold. Plus, you really haven’t lived until you’ve seen Beau Bridges channel The Dude. Yeah, yeah, yeah, it was brother Jeff in The Big Lebowski. But seeing Beau kickin’ it as Matt’s long-haired cousin, it’s as if this Bridges was also to the Dude Manor Born. And I loved seeing real-life pro surfer Laird Hamilton in a bit part as the guy manning the boat when Matt’s wife had her accident. Somebody give casting dude John Jackson a bonus.
Voice-overs by Clooney sound like real internal dialogue thanks to the skills of Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. The cinematography is wonderful, but since they’re shooting on the islands of Hawaii, it would take a brain damaged orangutan to make that gorgeous scenery look bad. Like Sideways, The Descendants is about a man who has buried himself in his work to avoid the outside world and it’s messy connections with other human beings. The camera work gives you a feeling of Matt’s discomfiture, and as he comes around to let his family in, things go from loopy medium shots to full shots that include other people. Directed by Payne, who has done amazing work with character studies in Election, About Schmidt, The Savages and Sideways, it’s no wonder The Descendants is an amazing achievement.
For Matt, his wife’s death is a rite of passage into full blown adulthood. And at the end of The Descendants, not everything is tied up with a pretty bow. This movie is a slice of their life, not a blow-by-blow. But there’s a hope at the end of the film that viewers can take with them. Write the ending of the King’s story as you like, but any way you play it out, The Descendants is an affecting, lovely, laugh-out-loud bit of filmmaking that makes me happy it’s Oscar season.