‘The Descendants’ is Another Outstanding Success from Alexander Payne

We review the movie starring George Clooney as part of our 2011 New York Film Festival coverage.
The Descendants
Fox Searchlight Pictures
By  · Published on November 18th, 2011

Editor’s Note: This review was published on October 18 as part of our New York Film Festival 2011 coverage. With The Descendants hitting (limited) theaters this week, we’ve gone ahead and republished it for those of you who need further reason to check out a George Clooney film that takes place in Hawaii.

After seven years of waiting, Alexander Payne finally has another feature film coming to the big screen. While the wait has been tumultuous and tedious, seven years for films like The Descendants makes the anticipation worth it. Heartfelt, sweet, funny, touching, and every other adjective that describes Payne’s movies applies to his fifth feature.

Like his past work, this is another exploration of a search for manhood and meaning. Payne has a real knack for writing men who have been reduced by women. Matt King (George Clooney in another career-best performance) has a line about how all the women in his life bring him down; that applies to the thought process behind all of Payne’s leads, from Sideways to About Schmidt to Election. Both uncomfortably and honestly, the writer-director understands emasculated men who, for lack of a better phrase, are simply trying to get their shit together.

Ultimately, King’s problems don’t come from the women he’s surrounded with, but from himself. His life before the film was one of passivity, a problematic marriage, and playing the role of the “backup” parent. King goes from being that backup parent to an actual parent, and it’s a quiet and moving transformation. It takes a while to get there, though. Payne certainly isn’t afraid of showing his leads at their lowest points. The director never sugarcoats King, and it’s devoid of any Clooney charm. This is a guy who’s not particularly likable on the surface – but as is the case with Payne’s other films, there are reasons and pain for such flaws. It doesn’t matter whether one likes Matt King, just that one finds his change to be believable and feels his discovery by the end.

King isn’t the only one with shades of gray; everyone around him has their own dichotomy. His father-in-law, Scott (Robert Forster), is, as the annoying teenager Sid points out, a total “prick.” Beneath that prickliness is a sad parent dealing with problems of his own – arguably greater than King’s. King’s older daughter, Alexandra (played with a vulnerability by Shailene Woodley), is more than a rebellious teenage daughter. Even the man King’s wife slept with, Brian (Matthew Lillard), couldn’t be further from malicious. They’re simply flawed people.

And, as expected, Payne never shies away from poking fun at these characters, yet there’s a clear love for all of their odder qualities, with it never coming off as mean-spirited. He finds all the little, annoying things in life that people do, and manages to capture them perfectly on film. From how some people deal with an awkward moment to the difficulty of handling a stressful situation, he gets it all.

By the end, the director made me want to give Matt King – and everyone else around him also dealing with their own problems – a hug. Never cynical or overly sentimental, The Descendants is another beautiful success from Alexander Payne. This is, among many things, a film about connecting with family, both living and dead, and finding catharsis in seemingly dreadful situations. Similarly to Sideways and About Schmidt, Payne couldn’t have ended the film in a more poignant fashion as a way of further proving his love for his very flawed, but ultimately good-natured leads.

The Upside: Not only is this another work from Payne, but another great one; delivers exactly what one wants from the man.

The Downside: Besides a slightly overlong intro narration, not much, because – you guessed it – it’s an Alexander Payne film.

On The Side: Seeing Robert Forster smack an obnoxious (but soon to be sympathetic) kid will go down as one of the most cathartic onscreen moments of the decade.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.