Director Alexander Payne certainly has the eye for middle aged men trapped in a crisis. But before i delve head first into the territory of sexual innuendos, of course i imply this notion on a true artistic and cinematic level. Throughout his impressive back catalogue, we’ve seen the likes of Paul Giamatti (Sideways) and Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt) portray characters reduced to mere emotional wrecks. Now.. it’s time for Payne to add Hollywood heavyweight and A grade charmer George Clooney to such an esteemed list.
The opening to ‘The Descendants’ has such a joyous nature about it, you instantly wonder where Payne’s trademark bittersweet feel to his work has wandered off to. A sun kissed woman on a speedboat, seemingly having the time of her life. But of course.. queue the feel good factor taking a nosedive accompanied by the tender tones of Clooney’s narration.
With the gorgeous and easy on the eye sights of Hawaii providing the backdrop, we discover that the woman in question is actually Clooney’s character Matt King’s wife Elizabeth and is now being hospitalised after tragically slipping into a coma. Under such traumatic circumstances, this leaves Matt to go all independent and be forced under the strain of looking after his two ‘difficult’ daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scotty (Amara Miller). Awkward conversations aplenty ensue, with big revelations helping to fuel the narrative and Matt being left perplexed. If that wasn’t enough, he is locked in a battle with his financially unstable family counterparts to sell a considerable amount of land, that has been passed down from generation to generation. If sold on, it would have major implications on the local inhabitants.
For Clooney’s standards, this is easily his most restrained and emotionally fractured role to date. With his usual mannerisms on lock down, it results in his best on screen performance yet. Whether it’s the perhaps unintentional hilarity of him running around in flip flops or the understated delivery of his dialogue in the more poignant moments, his Oscar nominated portrayal of ‘Matt’ proves to be a compelling and ultimately likeable central protagonist.
He is backed up wonderfully by the younger contingent also, with Woodley and Miller displaying a sharp wit and emotional depth beyond their years. The traditional and breezy Hawaiian soundtrack will very much get you into the ‘hula hula’ spirit too! There are however, certain kinks in the execution of the material. Alexandra’s initally obnoxious friend Sid (Nick Krause) and his ‘what’s up bro?’ persona seems to have crept in from a terribly average teen movie. In addition, it is arguably Payne’s least comedic work with certain attempts falling a tad flat.
But thankfully, these aspects don’t detract too much from the fact that ‘The Descendants’ is a terrific character piece. Assured direction with plot developments never feeling too contrived or tacked on, outstanding performances and on point observation of family life proves once again.. that Payne is one of the ‘go to’ guys for complex and thought provoking drama.