Written by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
Directed by Alexander Payne
Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley and Judy Greer
Matt King: I’m the back-up parent, the understudy.
It has been seven years since Alexander Payne’s last feature film, SIDEWAYS, charmed critics and audiences alike. The long gestation period has allowed him to make what I would describe as his most satisfying film to date, THE DESCENDANTS. Considering how much I love his earlier films, like ELECTION and ABOUT SCHMIDT, calling his latest his greatest is not a compliment I extend lightly.
At on point in THE DESCENDANTS, a character refers to Matt King’s (George Clooney) current predicament to be one heck of a “unique dramatic situation” and he is not kidding. Payne’s witty sceenplay finds every single important tie in Matt’s life has been tangled together and he can no longer move forward until he figures out how to loosen the ropes that are tightening around him. As the executor of his family’s estate, he is responsible for deciding what to do with a fine piece of Hawaiian real estate his ancestors left to him in trust, which has drawn much scrutiny from the locals. More importantly though, his wife is in a coma from a speed boating accident and he has two daughters (Amara Miller and breakout, Shailene Woodley) he barely knows to comfort and console. When he learns that his wife was cheating on him before her accident, it becomes pretty clear that the life he knew is now finished.
As particular as THE DESCENDANTS is, Payne infuses it with his special brand of humanity, sensitivity and humour. Payne has an uncanny knack for bringing his audiences right into the troubled minds of his characters, leaving both their pain and their potential exposed for all to see. In this case, all that heart and heartache seeps from every element of Clooney’s fine performance. With so much on his plate, you can constantly see the wheels turning in his head as he drifts off into thought in the gorgeous Hawaiian skyline. He acts as a filter of sorts for everything coming before this moment in his life, now faced with the task of passing on only the best parts to his two beautiful daughters. In doing so, THE DESCENDANTS only passes on the best that contemporary drama has to offer to us.