It's been an Alexander Payne week here at Film Ha Ha: starting the week with his gloriously subversive debut Citizen Ruth, and ending it with his latest work (the first in seven long years). And, overall, it's been a pleasure reacquainting oneself with one of American cinema's most consistent directors.
There's precious little time wasted in The Descendants' first act - we're thrown straight into the aftermath of the off-screen inciting incident. Hawaiian lawyer Matt King's (George Clooney, wearing his middle age proudly) wife Elizabeth has been in a motorboat accident, and he's trying to get on with life while she relies on life support. He's got another big responsibility on his hands - he's the trustee of a huge plot of prime, virgin Hawaiian real estate, and (most) of his cousins are encouraging him to sell sell sell. Everything becomes complicated when a doctor reveals that Elizabeth is going to have to be taken off life-support. So Matt takes his youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) on a plane ride to fetch her sister Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) from a home for troubled teens (drugs and older guys - tut tut!). The family embark on a multi-island journey - accompanied by comic relief tag along Sid (Nick Krause) - to tie up Elizabeth's loose ends before pulling the plug.
Here's the thing about The Descendants. Objectively, I can stand back and identify a number of flaws with the film. But there's just something about it that totally won me over. Call it a good mood, but for the most part the film charmed my socks off. Payne and co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (adapting a novel from Hawaiian author Kaui Hart Hemmings) work wonders with material. Like all Payne's previous films - from the harsh satire of Election to the understated mid-life crises of Sideways - the mix of drama and comedy is perfectly balanced. Even within individual scenes there can be great emotional power immediately followed by good-natured belly laughs. It's a very carefully considered mix, and one that frequently pays dividends with brilliant setpieces and scenes: from Matt's outburst at his comatose wife following an extra-marital revelation to an unexpectedly hilarious punctuation mark that concludes an awkward visit to the in-laws.
This is first and foremost a character study, and they're all lovable and flawed creations. Clooney gives an unshowy, unflattering and effective performance. An initially dominating voiceover threatens the character, but Clooney is quickly left to his own devices and allowed to effectively emote without pissing off Robert McKee. The two King sisters also impress: although Woodley has deservedly received the heaviest plaudits, Miller is equally effective in the fewer moments she has to shine. Only Krause proves irksome out of the main cast, but a few final act character moments may help you forgive his previously idiotic traits and actions.
The Descendants is, like every other film ever made, not perfect. The narrative does struggle a bit in the second-half, where it could certainly be argued that a lengthy trip to another Hawaiian island tries its hardest to kill the forward momentum and fluff up the running time. The film is also in many of ways more 'middle-of-the-road' than Payne's brasher, more adventurous earlier films. However, when the characters and stories are this well realised, it's easy to accept a handful of flaws and a lack of (comparative) originality.
Adding to the overall goodwill is a pleasantly objective take on the Hawaiian landscape - indeed, the film opens with a Clooney monologue demystifying the island lifestyle. There's tropical beauty here, but it's alongside mundanity. What makes the film so satisfying, however, is how well the various plot strands ultimately play off each other. This couldn't always be called a subtle film, but the overall thematic focus of family and responsibility is worked out beautifully by Payne and his crew. Not every payoff of the film is easily provided in the more explicitly emotional scenes (although they pack a punch, certainly). If you're willing to work, there's a lot underneath the surface. The Descendants is a film full of fascinating characters, humour, insight and warmth. In other words, it's that very same Alexander Payne from seven years ago.