DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: TIFF 2011 - The Descendants

Thursday 15 September 2011

TIFF 2011 - The Descendants

The Descendants (2011) dir Alexander Payne
Starring: George Clooney


By Alan Bacchus

(Warning: Spoilers contained here)

The Descendants admirably continues Alexander Payne's career of melancholy off-kilter comedy in which he finds humour in the most dire situations. In this case it's a man making contact with the relatives of his dying wife. He also needs to reconcile the mistakes made by both of them during their marriage. Payne's absurdist tone deftly marries silly, broad comedy with monumental tragedy resulting in a resonating and poignant bittersweet experience perfectly in line with the feelings we got from Sideways and About Schmidt.

George Clooney plays Matt King, a lawyer living in Hawaii and a member of a large family that is the title owner of a huge acreage of unused land on the island paradise. With their deal on the land ending and the family on the verge of selling, pressures run deep. Meanwhile, Matt's wife has been in a boating accident that has put her in a coma and on life support. Before pulling the plug, Matt and his two daughters, Alexandra and Scottie, must travel across the island and connect with each of their relatives to pay their last respects. Adding to Matt's grief is the heartbreaking revelation of his wife’s infidelity with a mystery man, causing a haze of anger and frustration that could cloud his business dealings.

It's a journey not unlike Jack Nicholson's in About Schmidt, whose fundamental life changing events caused a similar journey of self-discovery. For Matt, the journey serves to reconnect him with his daughters, who, in their burgeoning adolescence, have lost touch. Payne's characters are expertly drawn, relatable and humanized. They are matched with a roll call of supporting characters, each of which are off-centre just enough to spark the delightful comic conflict. In particular, Alex's stoner boyfriend, Sid, is an inspired creation, a wildcard on the journey whose laid back attitude to the heavy drama greases the joints of conflict but whose naiveté provides a unique and poignant perspective.

Much like the affable sap philanderer played by Thomas Haden Church in Sideways, Payne sympathizes with his antagonists, in this case Brian Spear (Matthew Lillard), the mystery man with whom Matt's wife was having an affair. The climatic meeting between the two men in the third act is a delightful conversation that plays to the enormous complexity of the situation. The dialogue from Alexander Payne and co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash is simple but perfectly precise – a confrontation both heated and tense, with all the other hugely dramatic subtext layered underneath.

Tonally, the film is cut out of the same mould as Sideways and About Schmidt. Location is as important as the Napa Valley was to Sideways and the mid-Western Nebraska/Colorado setting was to About Schmidt’s depiction of Middle America. The easy going attitude and the deep connection to the land and the environment come across in the Hawaiian locations, and the tender ukulele music brings a wisp of the fanciful to this heavy story.

If there's anything to fault Payne for it's the safety net above which he's put himself. His tonal consistency is remarkable, and he seems to be the one to take Woody Allen's place in the genre of humble, intelligent comedy. But Payne is operating like late-career Woody, who, after his track record, is allowed to rest on his laurels. But I can't help but feel Payne needs to take a risk and venture out of his comfort zone – after he has celebrated once again during awards season though.

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