by Michael Koresky
Dir. Alexander Payne, U.S., Fox Searchlight
An essentially dark drama bathed in tropical sunlight, Alexander Payne’s The Descendants almost dares you to take it seriously. Its glib direct-address voice-over narration, its sitcom-like establishing shots, its gaudy aesthetic of Hawaiian shirts and palm trees—none of these gestures announce The Descendants as a film striving for artistic credibility. And that’s just fine—for Payne and for us. As he showed in Election and About Schmidt, especially, Payne works in a defiantly accessible and mainstream register, yet manages to inject an emotional authenticity into his films, so that his characters, while clearly readable as regional and social types, behave in a manner that never feels overly cheapened by the machinations of some puppet master behind the scenes.
We’re not talking about uncompromised realism here, but rather a specifically American brand of filtered truth: like most of his fellow countrymen filmmakers, he prefers identifiable emotional arcs, the relatable comedy of behavior, the reliable drama of redemption. With The Descendants, a story of family and inheritance, Payne ventures into potentially uncomfortable territory and comes out with something reassuring—but that doesn’t make the journey unrewarding.
That said, let’s return for a moment to the matter of that voice-over. This is, as many have pointed out, a Payne-ful gesture: the director is known for having his characters’ thoughts blurted out over the soundtrack, which makes his films feel even more like the book adaptations they usually are—but they’re usually provided as ironic counterpoint. In About Schmidt, Nicholson’s hangdog narration, couched as letter writing to his African sponsor child, Ndugu, was the character’s occasionally successful, often crass attempt at self-analysis, which usually betrayed his own conservative nature and his paralytic judgment of others, including members of his own family. In the more masterfully drawn Election, we got a cacophony of warring voices, which formed a crisscross of self-justification so authentically deluded it was nearly exhilarating; one didn’t get a sense the narrators were sitting from a more enlightened spot, but were still stuck in neutral in whatever future they were narrating from. (His greatest deployment of the form so far is in his wondrous entry for the largely woeful omnibus Paris je t’aime, with Margo Martindale as a wide-eyed Midwesterner relating her epiphanies as a tourist in the City of Light.)
The Descendants engages with voiceover in a more straightforward, novelistic manner, opening with affable George Clooney’s honeyed tones as middle-aged dad-in-crisis Matt King, clueing us in on the emotional and geographical terrain we’re about to embark on; it also makes the more traditional mistake of dropping the narration a little less than half-way through the movie. This is glaring not only because The Descendants often flourishes at its least emphatic moments (like its final restive, wordless image of domestic tranquility, which is about as far from the glib hand-holding of narration as possible) but also because it makes King’s early declarations to us, the audience, seem even more significant and localized. Thus we get chestnuts such as “A family seems like an archipelago” and “What is it that makes the women in my life want to destroy themselves?” These lines undermine rather than deepen a character who’s richest when Payne and Clooney feel most ambivalent about him.
When we meet Matt, we learn his wife, Elizabeth, has suffered a head injury in a devastating boating accident, as he informs us in his deadpan manner (another issue with voiceover: the delivery is often so dispassionate that you cannot help but picture the actor perched on a stool in a recording studio, isolated, ears muffled), and lies in a coma. Matt also feels the need to dash the presumptive viewers’ preconceptions about his native land: Hawaii is not a lovely, lazy paradise, he insists, but a fast-paced and economically debilitated state, and Payne shows us attendant images of trash-littered streets and signs of poverty. There’s a slight disingenuousness to this opening, as The Descendants, adapted from a book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, proves to be a story about a relatively well-off middle-class family dealing not only with sudden loss but also with the uncommon conundrum of whether to sell a chunk of inherited land for a hefty sum.
The area in question consists of 25,000 gorgeous, untouched acres on Kauai, passed down from the Hawaiian royalty of which the Kings are descendants (blueblood missionaries make up the other half of their ancestry). The extended family of cousins—pictured as a faceless mass of oversized Hawaiian shirts and loose-fitting shorts—need to sell the property soon, in order to dissolve the trust, and Matt is the sole trustee. Naturally, the interested parties want to convert the lush, mountainous green with its sweeping vistas of the azure ocean into luxury resorts with hotels and golf courses. Yet King has too much on his mind at the film’s start to worry about such things as the rape of the natural land. He’s too busy dealing with the foul-mouthed acting out of his ten-year-old daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), and the rebellious resentment of her model-pretty 17-year-old sister, Alex (Shailene Woodley), their worst tendencies exacerbated by their mother’s condition. While Elizabeth lies in the hospital, the pre-existing tension between Matt and Alex flares up, resulting in the teenager blurting out to her father that she discovered some months prior that Elizabeth was having an affair, a revelation that severely complicates Matt’s response to the crisis, especially when it becomes clear that Elizabeth is not going to wake up.
Through all this, as in About Schmidt and Sideways, Payne keeps things pitched at the level of sitcom, not necessarily a bad thing. One reason he is good at episodic structure is his love of colorful character actors, who here include former Gumby-limbed comic relief dude Matthew Lillard as the elusive real-estate agent adulterer; the always earnest Judy Greer as his sweetly befuddled wife; a wonderfully self-effacing Mary Birdsong as Elizabeth’s close friend Kai; Robert Forster as Elizabeth’s resentful father, Scott, who is dealing with his own wife’s dementia and who misguidedly blames Matt for what happened to his daughter; and Nick Krause as Alex’s goofy teen beau, Sid, his mouth constantly stretched in a bemused rictus, who accompanies the family everywhere at Alex’s behest, pissing off Matt (and especially Scott) with his every chest-thumping “’Sup bro?” and otherwise tactless remark.
This latter character falls into the same camp as Payne’s most exhausting creations—such as Dermot Mulroney’s pony-tailed son-in-law-to-be in About Schmidt or Thomas Haden Church’s womanizing creep in Sideways—folks who are so tirelessly shallow or rude that one can’t imagine their films’ relatively enlightened main characters putting up with them for more than twenty minutes, let alone entire running times. Yet Matt allows Sid to tag along long enough for the kid to have his own redeeming moment, a nighttime chat in which we discover the dumb lug has feelings—and tragedies—of his own. The scene offers an adequate picture of Payne’s strengths (empathy even for stereotypical characters) and weaknesses (banal staging and mechanistic point-hitting). Yet for all of Payne’s occasional broadness, The Descendants is the most subtly pitched of his films—the comedy springs out of uncomfortable situations rather than slapsticky set-pieces (Sideways’ surprising strength) or easy laugh lines, and the Omaha-born Payne’s emphasis on its Hawaiianness—the soundtrack is wall to wall with laidback songs perfect for your very own luau; even the Kings’ dining room is wallpapered with palm trees—is more simply atmospheric than regionally patronizing (imagine the Coen brothers’ own Hawaii film for how much crasser a picture could be painted).
Payne, who’s always betrayed a love for his characters even when they seem hopeless (Tracy Flick’s sad climactic bedroom wail in Election is more memorable than any of her devious machinations), seems particularly interested in a specifically American strain of male failure. Clooney’s Matt King is the least pathetic and most upstanding of Payne’s men, an easygoing dad and lawyer dealing with financial and familial pressures; but, to Payne’s credit, Matt’s shortsightedness is eventually hinted at, as the discovery of his wife’s unfaithfulness—shades of About Schmidt here, in which Jack Nicholson’s mourning husband, suddenly alone and helpless in a big house, discovers love letters as signs of past adultery—leads him not on a soul-searching journey but rather on a fact-finding mission of possible revenge that’s clearly a distraction from dealing with very real, imminent tragedy. The more we see of Matt’s unforgiving nature, bottled-up rage, and inability to look at himself square in the face, the more we understand why the marriage might have been in quiet, uncommunicative dissolution. Payne, though, finally seeking the tidy wrap-ups of American dramedy, ultimately allows Matt some real movie-star moments, including a measured, Clooney-esque confrontation with his wife’s lover, and a self-revivifying send-off, in which he triumphs equally as a father, husband, and manager of his family’s legacy and that glorious parcel of land.
Towards the film’s end, Greer’s wronged wife, taking in the film’s many crossed paths and stirred-up emotions, cries, “It’s just so complicated and confusing!” Well, not really, even though Clooney and, especially in her early scenes, Woodley, tap into some very complicated feelings with arresting precision. It’s okay that everything turns out just fine in The Descendants—this is, after all, what we hope for ourselves in the immediate aftermath of tragedy. And Payne’s final shot is indeed a keeper, surely outdoing Michael Clayton’s closing-credits entry in the George Clooney staring-contest sweepstakes. We should be happy that we have a filmmaker like Payne, so invested in the dignities and demerits that are part and parcel of our every loving relationship. But it’s also true that there’s something in this film’s good grooming and very American need for clean narrative lines that finally keeps it from getting at the tough business it sets up for itself—namely, mourning, and all the messy emotions that come with it.