Director Alexander Payne, best known for high school-set political satire Election (1999) and wine-swilling on the road dramegy Sideways (2004), is filling a void in Hollywood with an unprepossessing brand of art house multiplexia: quaint, deftly handled films, indie in essence and bottled to the public with the casting of a marquee name.
Paul Giamiatti was the mildly neurotic Merlot snubber in Sideways, Jack Nicholson the rudderless, widowed retiring insurance actuary in About Schmidt (2002) and George Clooney the befuddled father, aggrieved husband and head trustee perched on a golden egg of Hawaiian real estate that could make him and his extended family fifty rich in Payne’s latest, The Descendants. The sale is impending but his mind is consumed by other matters — particularly the health of his wife, who is lying in hospital in a coma after a boating accident.
Matt King (Clooney) has two whippersnapper back-talking daughters: 17-year old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and 10-year old Scottie (Amara Miller). King was always the secondary parent, but now, forced into the primary role, he’s forced to channel his emotions and crisis-manage his daughters’ behaviour in ways he is clearly unused to.
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No protagonist should look cool in an Alexander Payne film, so Clooney is daggified with gaudy Hawaiian shirts and baggy slacks to match his character’s below-waterline parental skills. Nothing, however, can hide that stardom, conceal that lens-hogging face, and Clooney’s celebrity is the only thing that breaks The Descendants’ realism, aside from the odd whiff of unusually placed comedy, like periodic brain snaps whooshed him back to the set of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) The cast are uniformly strong, with the young actors adding a crucial dynamic, forcing the film’s interpersonal relations to coil and turn.
The film’s tone is quaint but the story dramatic and the characters maintain the ability to shock and surprise. The genius of The Descendants’ screenplay, adapted by Payne and two other writers from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, is not the sensibility given to the moral ideas that it raises but its refusal to pinpoint solutions. Dealing with potentially heavy issues — sickness, infidelity, painful memories, destructive stubbornness — the lasting impact is gentle, almost pleasant, Payne seeming to find solace in the simple continuation of life itself. Payne’s style in Hollywood, like King’s beautiful, corruptible stretch of land in the pineapple state, where waters continue to fold into the sun-baked shore irrespective of the quibbles and quarrels on land, remains largely untouched by its surroundings.
The Descendants’ Australian theatrical release date: January 13, 2012.