Alexander Payne where have you been all this time? You have been sorely missed. The director of Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways hasn’t made a film in seven years! But no need to worry any more because he is back in top-notch form once again with The Descendants. Payne has a distinctive style where he blends tragedy and humor with humanity in a beautiful, natural way that is unlike any other filmmaker working today. He loves to make his main star flawed and unlikable at first. But as the story begins to unfold and the character begins to realize their mistakes, we watch them with our full attention and begin to really care about them and their situation. Payne is original with his storytelling along with his work behind the camera. He captures the complexity of life and the emotions that come along with it.
Payne’s new film is set in Hawaii and centers around Matt King (George Clooney) and his two daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), having to deal with the possibility of losing Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), his wife and their mother. She is involved in a boating accident that leaves her in a coma and the thought of her never waking up becomes a harsh reality for Matt and his two girls. As if that isn’t enough, he is also having to wrestle with a decision about selling some property that will decide the future of his family and their legacy in Hawaii. Matt describes himself as being the “back-up parent” because he hasn’t been around for most of his daughters’ lives. He was always gone on business and is out of touch with who his daughters are and how to reconnect with them during this difficult time.
Matt has regrets on how he has been a father and a husband. If Elizabeth will just wake up then he will make things right with her. He will give her the love and attention she deserves if only she will wake back up. But then he finds out something he never saw coming: His wife was having an affair and was going to divorce him. Right when you think the film is going in one direction, it changes its path. It is about the journey of a man who is trying to do the best he can and becomes self-aware of the life he is living and how it should have changed a long time ago. It could very well be too little too late at this point.
The Descendants is heartfelt and emotional, but always seems to find some humor in these uncommon, yet familiar issues we face as human beings. And with a story about how messy things can get, you need an actor who can portray a person who has confidence but needs help, has remorse but still allowed to be angry and no one is better than Clooney. Could this be one of his best performances ever? Absolutely. He isn’t the Clooney we are used to seeing in film. He is a lot more exposed and open in front of the camera this time around. From his hair to his clothes, he gives himself up to Payne completely and it pays off for both of them. And let’s not leave out the two girls who both give amazing performances, especially Woodley. And what is so terrific about The Descendants is how great all the performances are and how each character brings something to the film that allows it to get to the next level.
This dramatic comedy is tough, wrenching, and tender. It focuses on some devastating events that we hope to never encounter in our lifetime, but it does happen. And when it does what will we do? How will we act? That is what the film is all about. Incase you forgot how good Payne is, The Descendants is a guaranteed reminder.