In the last decade, one Best Picture nominee I had the most praise for was Sideways, a beautifully melancholy comedy drama from the pen of Alexander Payne. Oscar seemingly fell in love with Payne after that because both of his next two films were nominated in the Best Picture category.
Seven years after Sideways, Payne’s next project was The Descendants; an adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ book of the same name. Just like he did with Sideways, Payne won the Oscar for adapted screenplay this time sharing the award with his co-writers Jim Rash and Nat Faxon. The film itself is based around the life of Hawaiian lawyer Matt King, whose wife Elizabeth has recently been hospitalised following a boating accident. As a result of this, Matt is forced to become a proper father to his mischievous ten-year-old daughter Scottie and her troubled teenager sister Alexandra. Whilst trying to deal with his personal issues Matt is also involved with the sale of an expensive plot of land that was owned by his ancestors. As the lawyer, it’s his job to trawl through the legal paperwork and make the ultimate decision whether he and his cousins should sell and to who. Events get even more complicated when Alex reveals that Elizabeth was cheating on Matt with smarmy real estate agent Brian Speer to the extent that she was about to ask him for a divorce. The film then follows Matt’s quest to track down Brian, bond with his daughters and decide what to do with the land. At the film’s heart is a story about the bonds between family which is represented both through Matt’s relationship with his daughters and his decision regarding his ancestral land. I think that Payne and his co-writers did a good job at looking at a man who had essentially been passive all of his life and turn him into someone who had to be active. In a way this is the sort of film I would have a liked A Serious Man to be as Matt King is similar to the protagonist from the Coen Brothers’ film. But, thanks in part to Payne’s script, you grow to like Matt and his daughters as the film goes on.
A big part of why the film works is due to George Clooney’s performance as Matt, in which he changed his image from the debonair film star. Elsewhere in the blog we’ve seen Clooney play everything from smooth-talking astronaut to intelligent fixer but The Descendants sees him alter his style. Matt is instead quite ineffectual at points and Clooney brilliantly displays his character’s hopelessness especially in regards to raising his daughters and Elizabeth’s situation. Despite altering his style, Clooney’s vocals are still as silky as ever and they are well utilised to deliver several of the film’s key monologues. I did feel at times as if Payne, Rash and Faxon were cheating at times by heaping a dollop of exposition onto our plates, but Clooney’s delivery is so flawless that it doesn’t really matter. Lending able support is Shailene Woodley, who earned a Golden Globe nomination and became a breakout star through her role as the damaged Alex. Woodley and Clooney share a believable chemistry and the scenes between their characters are thoroughly touching. One of my only issues was the fact that Alex had to be accompanied by the frankly useless Sid, a surfer dude who in my opinion served very little purpose. Due to the fact that The Descendants is filmed in and around Hawaii, The Descendants also has some great locations to work from and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael utilises these throughout the film. Further contributing to this theme is the Hawaiian music-heavy soundtrack which I found utterly pleasurable. Whilst The Descendants contains very little in the way of twists and turns it’s a lovely little character study on the meaning of family. It also includes one of George Clooney’s best performances to date and if you’re worried that we haven’t had enough of him yet then you’re in luck because we’ve got more of him in a moment.