NYFF ’11 Review: Digging Out the Gain From Loss in Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants”

Capturing a time of transition for its director and its lead character, the latest film from "Sideways" filmmaker Alexander Payne is a relaxed yet moving look at a father...

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All of our 2011 New York Film Festival coverage is here.

There has always been a great distance to overcome in the films of Alexander Payne, often the shorter lengths requiring more rigorous journeys. Whether it was the hallways of a high school in “Election” that stood in for the restlessness of its small-town denizens who (mostly) wanted something more or the bumpy road trip of California wine country endured by two middle-aged men at a loss for what they wanted. His latest, “The Descendants,” takes place in Hawaii, a destination that would be considered as paradise for some, though less than seconds in, its lead Matt King (George Clooney) grumbles in voiceover, “Paradise can go f— itself.”

TheDescendantsNot the words you’d expect from a man presiding over the impending sale of 25,000 acres of family-owned land in Kauai, but Matt has little control over much else when his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is injured in a waterskiing accident. While she’s the one in a coma, it is Matt who is paralyzed, unsure of how he’ll tell his two daughters that doctors have exhausted all their options to bring her back to consciousness, a quandary that ultimately pales in comparison to when his oldest, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), tells him that her mother was having an affair. The revelation awkwardly places King in the position of having to find and inform her lover (Matthew Lillard), a real estate agent on another island that they’ll soon be pulling the plug.

In his fifth feature and his first without longtime co-writer Jim Taylor (who is still here credited as a producer), Payne is revealing himself to be a filmmaker less interested in snappy dialogue than the dialogue, or lack thereof, that occurs after someone’s snapped. Although there’s laughs in seeing Matt hurry a few blocks down the road to confront friends he believes knew about his wife’s infidelity, moments of levity are less pronounced than ever before in one of Payne’s films as “The Descendants” settles into a decidedly laid-back approach befitting of its Hawaiian setting.

The film is rich with the details of native Kaui Hart Hemmings’ 2007 novel that painted the islands with eternally grey skies where the inherent beauty peeks out occasionally, which mirrors the generally sanguine tone Payne lays down, and the idea that the archipelago represents more than the geography of where the Kings live, but of the family’s relationships to each other. A product of the more sweaty aspects of the tropical environment, Matt has spent decades punching the clock towards aligning his disparate extended family’s business interests, working far less on bridging the widening gap between himself and his daughters – the teenage Alexandra adrift in boarding school until she’s brought back for her mother’s final days where she threatens to be a poor influence on her 10-year-old sis Scottie (Amara Miller).

If there’s a signature to Payne’s work that’s been consistent, it’s the dignity he gives to everyone onscreen, the most obvious beneficiary being Clooney’s Matt, who as the conflicted dad doesn’t take his wife’s fate lightly even after learning of her adultery yet clearly simmering with a mix of anxiety and anger beneath a brave face. The same respect is extended to the supporting players in the Kings’ life, from Sid (Nick Krause), the dimwitted friend of Alexandra’s whose constant bemusement leads Matt to believe Sid has some perspective he doesn’t after he tires of being annoyed with him, to the wife of Elizabeth’s lover (Judy Greer), who is also in the dark about the affair and gets perhaps the film’s definitive scene when she finds her way into the Kings’ lives. And for many in “The Descendants,” one or two scenes is all it takes to make an impression, with fresh faces like Woodley and Miller as well as veterans such as Beau Bridges and Robert Forster all taking advantage of the mercurial emotions born out of a death they have time to prepare for, even if they never can be fully.

For longtime fans of Payne, “The Descendants” may also feel as if it’s a transition that the director has been preparing for, a relaxed style of storytelling that in his previous films “About Schmidt” and “Sideways” still had to have punctuation even if they ran at the pace of everyday life. But despite the fact the film hangs on the performance of one of the world’s most dashing movie stars, you never sense the cinema of “The Descendants,” which is completely unromantic about its medium and in its story, where divorcing yourself from some legacies of the past is a necessity to move forward. And yet few films result in such an overwhelming feeling of love at their end.      

"The Descendants" opens on November 23rd. It will also play the Austin Film Festival on October 26th.

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