The comedic drama is the fiddliest of genres. Often pathos overwhelms the lighter moments and the comedy invariably gets lost amidst a sea of worthy sentimentality. Not so with Alexander Payne’s latest pic The Descendants, an often hilarious, sometimes tear jerking emotional rollercoaster of a movie that cements Payne’s position as the master of the flawed anti-hero.
Matt King (a quite brilliant George Clooney), a frugal lawyer but soon to be mega-loaded land baron, is thrown into turmoil following his wife Elizabeth’s boating accident. Caring for his comatose spouse in intensive care it soon becomes clear that he has far from the perfect life.
Effectively forced to look after his two daughters, Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alex (star in the making Shailene Woodley), whom he has seemingly neglected for years, King goes on a journey of discovery as he faces up to the prospect of a broken marriage and unexpected parental responsibility.
Not only that, but he’s the sole trustee to 25,000 acres of prime real estate and must sell the land, a decision that will snuff out over 100 years of family history in an instant. With a posse of expectant cousins sensing a windfall, King is saddled with the extra familial burden of making the right call over whether to sell to the highest bidder or the most appropriate one.
Payne supplants this action in a far from idyllic Hawaii, replete with grey skies and the bustling cityscape of Honololu, a side of the islands that is rarely seen on film, with the bleak-ish backdrop clearly reflecting the trauma that King and particularly his daughters are going through.
As King contends with rebellious Alex, who resents her dad for not caring for her and apparently hates her mother, he soon learns that Elizabeth was not quite the perfect wife she seemed to be, fooling around as she was with local realter Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). With his daughters and dopey comic relief Sid (Nick Krause) in tow, King goes in search of some sort of vengeful redemption.
Their journey inevitably brings King and his daughters closer together as they come to terms with the tragedy and deception that Elizabeth has left in her wake. It’s sometimes poignant, often melancholy but always interspersed with moments of hilarity and much of the credit must go to Payne and his co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash for their expertly crafted and balanced screenplay.
That said Clooney is at the top of his game as the somewhat inept paterfamilias King. He’s suitably sarcastic, angry, doting and a little bit useless. He also lends King a measure of restraint and compassion that is admirable in light of the circumstances. Woodley’s Alex is terrific too, all moody, self-assured and confident, but still afflicted enough to encourage sympathy.
None of this would matter if Payne had failed to so effortlessly meld the mirth with the drama, ensuring that any sentiment is thankfully lacking in saccharine and that’s where the real success of The Descendants lies. It’s an expertly crafted tragi-comedy that explores that all too familiar theme of familial disintegration and reconciliation but does so with a deftness of touch, a healthy dose of conviviality and just enough emotion to warm the heart and bring a tear to the eye.
(originally featured at www.lostinthemultiplex.com)