‘The Descendants’: The year’s best

November 17, 2011

I’ll say it flat out – Alexander Payne’s new film, “The Descendants,” is my favorite of the year, a movie that manages to be heart-breaking and laugh-out-loud funny at the same time.

Adapted from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemming, “The Descendants” is about dealing with the past while confronting the present and contemplating the future. It is a story of family disaster and salvation, a mystery wrapped in a tragedy and overlaid with the most human comedy.

It also features one of the best performances of George Clooney’s career, a portrayal of sublime depth and simplicity. No mannerisms, no playing on his obvious glamour – just a character dealing with all manner of pain and confusion without obviously falling apart because, well, he simply has to keep it together.

Clooney plays Matt King, a successful real-estate lawyer on the Big Island of Hawaii and a born-and-bred Hawaiian, though more haole than native. As the film begins, he is dealing with one immediate crisis and one impending one.

The immediate earth-shatterer is the fact that his wife, Elizabeth, has suffered a head injury in a speedboat accident. She is comatose in a hospital and, early on, the doctor tells him that, in fact, she’s not going to come back. Plus she has an advance directive in her will, calling for her to be taken off life support so that, as her father (Robert Forster) says to Matt, “she won’t just lay there and spoil – like milk.”

Matt’s task is to tell his two daughters: Scottie (Amara Walker), 10, and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), who appears to be about 16. He retrieves Alexandra from the boarding school to which she’s been sent to help her straighten out from bad grades and casual drug use. Alexandra, however, is not a lot of comfort, harboring resentments that stem from an argument she had with her mother the last time she was home.

What about? As she reveals to Matt, she caught her mother sneaking around with another man, something about which Matt was completely clueless. And suddenly, even as he pulls the plug on his wife and waits for her to die, Matt becomes obsessed with this other man: with finding him, with laying eyes on him, with somehow finding out what it was about this guy that tempted his wife into leaving him.

Not that there aren’t clues. Matt himself admits that they had been distant because he spent so much time on his work. He was also, in his own words, stingy; though he has a huge family trust, he makes it a point of pride only to live on the income from his law practice, so as not to spoil his girls. The ultimate ant, working while the world of grasshoppers played around him.

Before he gets the bad news that Elizabeth won’t recover, however, he’s already mentally vowing to change his ways. Which brings in the impending problem:

Matt’s family, descendants of some of the original Anglo settlers of Hawaii who married native Hawaiian royalty, owns a huge parcel of undeveloped land on Kauai, which trust laws are forcing them to sell. The high bid from developers is a half-billion dollars; the low bid isn’t much south of that. If Elizabeth will just come out of the coma, Matt promises God, he’ll loosen the purse strings, spend money on her and his daughters, stop working and enjoy life.

Too late. And, even as he stews about that other man, Matt is facing a major meeting with his numerous cousins, all of whom will get a share when they sell the land. But Matt is the sole trustee – the guy in charge of making the decision about which deal to make. His cousins’ definitions of life-and-death issues suddenly are much different than his.

Payne has an amazing filmography, beginning with the sly “Citizen Ruth,” through “Election,” “About Schmidt” and “Sideways.” He is a master of understatement, evoking powerful emotions with subtle and quiet moments. That’s particularly true here, where wrenching feelings are in play but big outward expressions of them aren’t.

He is also outstanding at switching gears in a blink. One example: As Matt makes the rounds, telling people that Elizabeth is not going to make it so they should go say their goodbyes now, he asks Alexandra to accompany him. Her price: dragging along a pal named Sid (Nick Krause), a seemingly clownish doofus whose laidback stoner affect is good for a number of laughs.

But then, in a scene in which a desperate Matt asks Sid for advice in the middle of the night, though Payne lets Sid get his laughs, he also unexpectedly deepens the character in surprising ways. It changes Matt’s view of Sid – and ours – without calling attention to itself.

Payne draws amazing work out of Clooney, who, like Tom Hanks, took a few years to find his groove as a movie actor after years on TV. But with his Oscar-winning work in “Syriana” and his nominated performances in “Michael Clayton” and “Up in the Air,” he has found his sweet spot, playing flawed men who are only too aware of their shortcomings.

He makes Matt King something else altogether: a cautious achiever, someone who seems hard to imagine ever having any self-generated fun. Indeed, though the character talks about surfing while he was in law school, it’s not hard to visualize him setting the alarm on his wristwatch so he can get back to the books on time, never allowing himself to have too much fun. George Clooney as a drudge? Absolutely; he’s fascinatingly believable as a guy who is smart about everything except the human heart.

The rest of the cast is equally good, particularly Woodley as a teen whose emotional maturity outstrips her father’s, despite her wild-child ways. Judy Greer turns in the kind of small, tangy performance that is always Oscar bait, as does Forster, as Clooney’s gruff father-in-law. It’s a superb ensemble cast, from top to bottom.

It’s a shame – though understandable – that Fox Searchlight has gone out of its way to fill its commercials for “The Descendants” with spoilers, giving away crucial plot points and jokes from the film. It wasn’t necessary. There are any number of ways you could have sold this film without strip-mining it of its most potent moments or plot points.

So, anytime you see Clooney’s face pop up in a commercial for this film, change the channel. Then head straight for your local theater to see “The Descendants,” hands-down the best film of 2011. Period.

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