Tuesday, November 22, 2011
THE DESCENDANTS (2011)
In ELECTION (arguably his best film) and CITIZEN RUTH (an overlooked gem) director/co-writer Alexander Payne achieved merciless satire without sacrificing the deeply flawed characters’ humanity. And while SIDEWAYS lacked a satirical tone, it cut its characters little slack yet remained compassionate. Following this evolutionary path, Payne’s latest film (adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel by Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash) retains its humanistic tendencies but lets its characters off the hook. George Clooney stars as Matt King, a Honolulu real estate lawyer and absentee husband and father who acts as trustee to his family’s pristine acres on Kauai which must be sold off by law. As various cousins gather to vote on which developer will purchase the land, Matt gets a wake-up call when his wife Elizabeth lands in a coma after a boating accident. Because the prognosis is negative and both spouses have a do not resuscitate clause in their living will, Matt must become full-time father to precocious 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and troubled teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) while preparing family and friends for the worst. So the news that Elizabeth had been having an affair in the months leading up to her accident only adds to Matt’s burden. His search for the adulterer leads him to Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), a realtor who could gain from the sale of the King family land. The film’s voiceover exposition is off-putting, but Payne soon finds his storytelling rhythm and allows his fine cast breathing room. Clooney gives a relaxed, understated performance, while Robert Forster makes a welcome return to the big screen as Elizabeth’s gruff father. Judy Greer is terrific as Speer’s guileless wife, and Woodley shows exceptional nuance in what could have been a single-note role. Still one can’t help but feel that Payne has given Matt a pass. Though Matt acknowledges his shortcomings in voiceover, his comatose wife never gets the opportunity to confront him or to defend herself. And while this allows for a happier ending, the film’s final family portrait does not ring true. Perhaps Payne has gone soft. I hope not. I miss the Payne who practices tough love.