Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Reconciling ourselves -- 'The Descendants' review

"In a couple of days, it'll all be over."

It's not until relatively late in Alexander Payne's fifth feature, "The Descendants," that George Clooney says this line almost casually and nonchalantly, but despite his outward tone it carries so much weight and heartbreak. It's just one of many deft, blink-and-you'll-miss-it exchanges of throwaway sentences, grief-stricken faces, and warm humor embedded in Payne's tale of a family trying to pull itself out of a disaster.

To call it an intimate family drama of comedic highs and tearful lows would undermine the much larger project of Payne's film: This is a small epic of chronology about privilege and reconciliation, the interpretation of how families transmit values and connect to each other.

The latest incarnation of Payne's male-in-crisis, George Clooney plays Matthew King, a Hawaiian lawyer who controls a land trust inherited down through his family from his great-great-grandmother. The trust is set to dissolve in seven years, and King's vast network of cousins work to try and persuade him who to sell the land to -- and how they can best reap the profits. As the deadline to vote on the land decision looms, King's wife Elizabeth suffers a boating accident that puts her in a coma.

In the wake of the accident, King must connect with his two daughters -- the angry and insecure Scotty (child actor Amara Miller, who wonderfully conveys lots of very deep emotions) and the profane, drug-user-in-recovery Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, who may very well give the film's best performance) -- even as they deal with their increasingly stark reality.

Adapting a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, Payne's writing has the kind of acute sense of culture and character emblematic of his work. Characters aren't afraid to have sudden bursts of their true feelings, but in equal measure reserve those emotions to hushed glances and quiet sighs. Clooney's King is a great challenge for both director and actor: a man who readily acknowledges his the privilege previous generations have provided him and a workaholic who has a rough relationship with his daughters, he's not the most likeable person, and he doesn't have to be. This is not a film of good or bad people, but surprisingly honest and direct people trying to confront their most painful failings.

While this certainly isn't the most vulnerable or complex performance Clooney has ever given, it stands high among his work. There are moments where he explodes with anger at his situation, moments where he keeps his mouth shut despite his obvious desire to scream in anguish, and moments where he simply pulls off a good funny line and works his charm. Most surprising is Woodley, who goes toe-to-toe with Clooney in every scene. As a teenager who refuses to tone herself down in front of her father and speaks as explicitly as she likes, hers is a transformation not into a subservient position in the family, but into recognizing the world is larger than what she's seen it to be. The strength of Payne's characterization is to show them each needing the other, growing in simultaneously if divergent ways through the strength they each find.

The trailers for "The Descendants" unfortunately reveal quite a few plot turns, so I won't speak much to the narrative itself, which is worth meeting on its own terms for the somewhat ingenuous ways the various plots intertwine and complicate one another. Rather, it's worth noting the way Payne portrays the Hawaiian world, not just in the beauty of its oceans and landscapes, but in the ways people relate to this landscape on a social, cultural, and historical level. It's quite a precise theme in the film, and it slowly inches its way around every corner of the visuals and the sound.

What's most riveting, most accomplished in "The Descendants" is how Payne builds this rather large tapestry of meaning. Sure, there are some moments that are quite "on-the-nose" in terms of characters stating the theme or telling their feelings. But the film as a whole slowly accumulates a multi-faceted and surprisingly deep examination of what "family" means. It stirs us to recognize where we come from, who built the world we stand on today and what (if anything) we owe them, while also looking at the future generations -- what do we owe THEM, and are we doing what we should to ensure they can continue building the world in positive ways?

For a film that is, at its most ostensible level, about a family member dying, "The Descendants" thankfully avoids much of the schmaltz that usually comes with this brand of melodrama. Its teary moments feel earned, its comedy is barbed, but most importantly it feels born of a place of sheer honesty.

I realized, visiting several of Alexander Payne's films over the last week in preparation for this one, that I have intensely personal reactions to his films on an emotional level -- something that rarely happen to me at the movies. More importantly, his films have meant different things to me at different points in my life. When I saw "About Schmidt" in a theater nine years ago, it made a huge impression on me, and it still does, but in a completely different way. I suspect "The Descendants" will operate in the same way, and as such I can't properly sit here and say that I'm evaluating the film on a scholarly level.

Try as I might to divorce myself from the work and meet it on a formal and thematic level, Alexander Payne has thwarted my best laid plans, if only because "The Descendants" is a gigantic sneak attack. In ways both small and huge, it is a beautifully affecting film. Each moment is measured in equal parts heart and mind, calculated and spontaneous. It is full of -- by turns -- anguish, despair, and love.

If his films are about journeys and crises, be they literal (Warren Schmidt's journey across the plains) or slightly more figurative (Jim McAllister's spiral of self-destruction in "Election"), "The Descendants" journeys -- at times literally through the archipelago of Hawaii and at times figuratively through the relationship of the family -- to a place where it confronts us with the depths of love. Where do we find strength for compassion? Where do we look past our own failings and try to forgive? How do we deal with anger? With grief?

The answers are in the title: We are all "The Descendants" of someone and somewhere, and we must measure ourselves against that.

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