If there’s one thing that links Alexander Payne’s recent movies, it’s their floundering male protagonists, who find themselves confounded by the world around them – whether it’s Jack Nicholson’s ageing insurance worker in About Schmidt, struggling to get used to retirement, or Paul Giamatti’s sloshed, depressive writer in Sideways.
Payne’s latest, The Descendants, introduces George Clooney’s character, Matt King. He may be a successful lawyer, a resident of a beautiful Hawaiian island, and about to inherit a fortune once he’s sold off the huge tract of unspoiled land that belongs to he and his cousins, but he’s as awkward and faltering as the leads in About Schmidt and Sideways.
First, Matt’s wife Elizabeth is in a coma following a boating accident. Matt puts a brave face on for his two wayward daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), but he’s quietly aware that Elizabeth’s injuries mean she’ll probably never wake up.
From here, Matt’s life becomes increasingly more complicated. Suddenly forced to reconnect with the daughters he’s barely seen in ten years, he finds himself ill at ease with Scottie’s bad language and habit of sending unpleasant texts to her classmates, or Alexandra’s penchant for alcohol and douche bag boyfriends. And then, just when things couldn’t get any worse, Matt learns that his wife was having an affair with a real estate agent, and had the boating accident not occurred, she’d probably be filing for a divorce.
George Clooney’s great as a beleaguered middle-aged father, even if he’s not necessarily an obvious choice for the role. His attempt to remain calm and dignified as his life spirals out of control is beautifully conveyed, as Clooney leaves puts his Hollywood leading man persona aside to deliver a tender, vulnerable performance.
When Matt learns of his wife’s infidelity, Payne films him trotting and huffing down the road to a friend’s house to find out more. Later, when Matt finally confronts the man his wife was seeing, the atmosphere is awkward and resentful rather than full of macho posturing.
This understated mix of awkwardness, gentle comedy and incisive character study is so perfectly Payne that it’s easy to forget that The Descendants is an adaptation rather than an original script. Having read Kaui Hart Hemmings’ original novel since watching the film, it’s notable just how similar Payne and Hemmings’ style of dialogue writing is – it’s not difficult to see why Payne decided to adapt it. Many of the exchanges are lifted, almost unchanged, from the book, and while some of the characters’ story arcs are necessarily curtailed a bit to fit in a two-hour movie, it’s a faithful adaptation.
The quality of both the source and its adapted screenplay (courtesy of Payne and co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) is matched by a perfectly chosen cast. Robert Forster is great as Elizabeth’s glowering, belligerent father. Miller and Woodley provide natural, believably performances as Matt’s feisty, rebellious daughters, and Nick Krause is good value as a smirking, feckless boyfriend whose lesson in manners from Forster is hilarious and well-deserved. Beau Bridges and Matthew Lillard are great, too, in smaller yet important roles.
The Descendants slips from sophisticated drama to comedy with ease. It doesn’t quite achieve the gold-plated brilliance of Sideways, I’d argue, and its laughs are more muted and sporadic than that 2004 movie, but it’s still superbly written, beautifully shot and sublimely acted.
Payne has a real talent for balancing pathos, humour and astutely observed characters, and The Descendants is yet more proof of this. Do go and see it.