[16 September 2011]
PopMatters Features Editor
Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Judy Greer
There is much to admire in Alexander Payne’s new comic drama, his first since the widely-revered Sideways in 2004. Though not nearly as clever or as fun as his earlier masterstrokes like Election or Citizen Ruth, this is a mature and well-executed study of what happens when people die and leave us with their messes to clean up.
In this case, it is George Clooney’s risk-junkie wife who is soon to be taken off of life support following a boat accident. Revelations about her, about their marriage, come to light, and Clooney (along with his troublemaking 10-year-old, his rebellious teenage daughter, and her vacant surfer dude boyfriend) heads off to try to set things right again, even as he is in the throes of deciding to whom to sell a massive chunk of pristine land that was entrusted to him by his great grandparents.
This is, at the root, a road movie: as one would expect, their travels around the various islands are used as a device to bring these estranged parties together, and their goal is something of a mission that can never be fully accomplished. But, there is more here than simply a journey; Payne uses the parallel problems left behind by the dead (the cherished land which must be sold to developers, the revelations left behind by his now silenced wife) to great effect, and the audience is caught up in a tightly constructed tale about coming to terms with what can be saved, and what must be let go. Perhaps most impressive of all,
The Descendants has a masterful sense of place, turning the postcard-cliché of sunny Hawaii into an often dour, sleepy American outpost that feels completely real, lived in, and familiar. Too much clunky voice-over in the early going and a few scenes in which delicate poignancy is shattered for a quick laugh mar an otherwise very entertaining and touching movie.