“The Descendants” is a film filled with bitterness, resentment and judgment. And yes, I would say it’s a comedy and that it’s quite lovely.
If the film’s idyllic Hawaiian setting or quirky indie comedy trailers seem deceptive, that is exactly the point. “The Descendants” is a film about appearances, and with each character there is a long lineage of Hawaiian heritage who show us that with every meeting and action, we carry along with us emotional baggage and sins of the past that skew our perception of the present.
We want to be honest about the here and now, but in others we only see the past. Sometimes what we see seems unfamiliar, and it’s tough to forgive.
Such is the case with Alexander Payne’s film. The story of Matt King (George Clooney) and how he copes with the knowledge of his wife’s affair as she lies in a coma, it appears as though “The Descendants” could be a number of films following certain clichés and dramatic tropes. It could’ve been a strict parenting drama as he is now the primary care giver for his 17 and 10-year-old daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller).
But rather, the screenplay by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash is a complex family drama that provides lots of inner details without ever delving into them and becoming bloated. It mentions how Alexandra is a recovering drug addict at a boarding school, yet the movie never succumbs to the urge to have her once again struggling with addiction. It assumes that Matt is a somewhat distant husband, but it never flashes back to troublesome moments with his wife or family just for the sake of piling on melodrama.
Instead, these characters have a way of bringing up the past and never living in the present. When Matt confronts some family friends about his wife’s affair, the judgments and the flaws they bring up can seem like ancient history.
This story and this idea of a tense history are what the film is strictly focused on, and “The Descendants” proves to be a tightly executed drama.
Yet it still finds moments of levity and tenderness, either in the harsh husbandly criticisms from Matt’s father-in-law Scott (Robert Forster) or in the goofy bro attitude of Alexandra’s boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause). Sid is a wonderful example of how a familiar character type, the dumb surfer dude, would make us very quick to judge. But Krause plays him with the perfect note of casualty to feel like a very honest character without ever becoming a cliché.
Similarly, anyone seeking a “George Clooney performance” is looking in the wrong place. If Clooney found his vulnerability in “Up in the Air,” Payne finds a way to transform him into an intelligent everyman with just as much fragility. He’s wonderful here.
And yet for all of “The Descendants” looking back and examining how we use our past to dictate the way we act, ultimately this is a sweet film with the goal of learning to forgive and act in the present. The movie’s heartbreaking finale is the perfect summation for all the cynicism, pain, depression and uncertainty that came before.