It’s not uncommon for life to get in the way of your becoming the person you want to be. But what’s ironic is that you often don’t realize that you’re failing to realize your goals or meet your responsibilities. In Alexander Payne’s poignant new film, The Descendants, lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) is clueless to the fact that he’s striking out as a husband and a father. Sure, his eldest daughter, Alex (Shailene Woodley), has had some substance abuse problems and his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), seems to be fighting a bit of middle-age malaise. But things can’t be that bad can they?
King has no idea how badly his family has fallen apart until his wife suffers a traumatic head injury and winds up in a coma. Suddenly, the absentee parent is thrown into the maelstrom that is everyday life and he’s as lost as a puppy at sea. Not only does he have to care for his youngest daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), and contend with Alex’s teen angst, but he’s in the midst of overseeing a huge real estate transaction involving a very large piece of property that’s been entrusted to him by his family. That he finds out that his wife was having an affair with a local real estate agent (Matthew Lillard) is the last thing he needs.
Payne’s films (Election, About Schmidt and Sideways) have all dealt with characters at a moral crossroads, finding that their own sense of right and wrong is surprisingly at odds with society’s moral compass. King gets so wrapped up in being a good provider and saving his wealth for a rainy day that he fails to realize that often giving a hug or a providing a sympathetic ear is more valuable than financial security. He learns that disasters can occur that no amount of money can prevent or cure.
Payne seems to possess a quality that can’t be taught but is felt. He’s able to mine sincere laughs from the most human of moments, creating situations in which his characters are at their most vulnerable yet foolish. We never find ourselves mocking them, but rather relating to how they react to the ridiculousness of life. This is never more evident than when King is told of his wife’s infidelities. He quickly slips on a pair of loafers and frantically runs down the street and around the bend to a near neighbor to get confirmation of the news. Clooney is quite good in this moment, panic-stricken, confused and desperate, yet all the while displaying King’s frailties, which we can’t help but sympathize with, while chuckling at his response to this unjust situation. Clooney lays himself bare, confused by the fact that his secure life is anything but, that his daughters have minds of their own and that he’s forced to pay the piper for living a life of denial. Payne’s films feature wonderful moments that actors kill for. The veteran star’s moment is when King says his final farewell to his wife. Remorse and forgiveness are in Clooney’s voice and his eyes. It’s the poignant culmination of a subtly realized performance.
Woodley is also given many moments to shine as the angry teen that’s forced to grow up under duress. While the scenes in which she lets loose with the vitriol Alex has been carrying are effective, it’s the moment when she finds out about her mother’s impending death that breaks your heart. Equally effective is Robert Forester as King’s father-in-law, whose bluff and bluster hides his broken heart and Judy Greer, the wife of Elizabeth’s lover, whose reaction to these events is a model of maturity and grace.
What makes Payne’s films resonate is that they so accurately reflect what it is to be human. Examples of avarice, selfishness, anger and foolishness are all on display. Yet it’s the director’s ability to remind us that we’re all capable of acts of generosity, forgiveness and altruism in order to achieve redemption that makes his films essential.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at email@example.com.