Alexander Payne is at his best when exploring familial tribulations in idyllic settings. It's been seven years since his last film Sideways (itself a touching yet comedic drama about pre-marital woes in the California winelands) bagged him an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and another four nominations for the film. In The Descendants he has done it again, being nominated 5 times and in four of the same categories. This time he tackles on parenting, grief and dynastical haggling in picturesque Hawaii, and pulls it off with characteristic ease. See the full review after the jump.
George Clooney is Matt King, a Hawaiian lawyer, land baron and father who is forced to re-examine his life in light of recent tragic events. The events in question include a boating accident which left his wife in a coma and the discovery that she had been having an affair at the time. What's more, his two daughters - mischievous tomboy Scottie (Amara Miller) and troubled teenager Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) - need him more than ever. Having always been the back-up parent, the understudy, this proves to be the greatest challenge of all.
It's a joy to behold the journey undertaken by the King family and Sid, a dopey friend of Alexandra's whose purpose in the film starts out as comic relief but reveals itself to be far more than that. Faced by three wildly contrasting situations - the accident, the affair and a massive impending business decision which has implications not only for the King family but for the whole of Hawaii - the odd little quartet have no choice but to work as a team, and what a team they are!
Payne is one of the best in the business when it comes to treading the line between comedy and drama, and The Descendants brims with sharp wit, inappropriate language and genuine emotion: the makings of a journey as tragically humorous for the audience as it is for the characters. The beautiful scenery and soulful, folksy soundtrack give the film a distinctly Hawaiian atmosphere, another aspect that contrasts so beautifully with the realistic and tragic challenges faced by the characters.
A film of this nature would never succeed on story, scenery and soundtrack alone. Without phenomenal performances by the actors, the drama would simply be lost on the audience. Fortunately though, George Clooney, having missed his chance to work with Alexander Payne on Sideways, gives one of the performances of his career. That being said, the best performance in the film was that of newcomer Shailene Woodley. She was wonderful as Clooney's teenage daughter, and their pairing was the highlight of the movie. It's a pity though: Clooney is a shoo-in for Best Actor this year and Woodley wasn't even nominated. 2011 really was a year for female performances!
What are The Descendants' award prospects then? It hasn't done too badly so far, but my personal view is that it won't take home the Best Picture Award this year. Whereas initially it was impossible to separate this film and The Artist, I think the latter (or even Hugo) will take home the gold. A Best Picture winner requires that something extra (almost a gimmick) to grab the Academy's vote, and The Descendants is just too close to everyday life for their tastes. Of course, that doesn't mean it's not a beautiful film. Clooney is going to take Best Actor, and Payne might get Best Adapted Screenplay, but that's where it will end.
Verdict? Brimming with beauty, realism, emotion and humour, The Descendants is yet another triumphant dissection of the American family from Alexander Payne.