1 February 2012


Last week, The Descendants scooped five Oscar nominations, so it's another of a number of films I've talked about this week, whose filmmakers are hoping to grab the gold next month. In a way, I've almost left this review too late, because on Monday night, I got to see The Grey, and it was so damn good that I barely want to talk about anything else for the rest of 2012. But like the other nominees in what is collectively the weakest selection of Best Picture contenders in years, it's not that it's bad- it's good, but perhaps not great.

From Alexander Payne, the writer-director who has earned admiration for making biting and witty dramas like Election and Sideways, The Descendants is altogether softer. But as land magnate Matt King protests at the beginning of the movie, about his living in Hawaii, there's no reason to assume that its characters' heartaches are any less pauinful as a result. Matt's wife, Elizabeth, is involved in a jet-skiing accident, to begin with, and a bump on the head leaves her in a coma. Matt is therefore left to try and reconnect with his two boisterous daughters, Alexandra and Scottie, and work through the difficult realisation that Elizabeth was planning to leave him, before her accident.

When the film begins, it seems like it's going to be something of a slog. In the first ten minutes, Matt narrates the set-up, basically telling us what he does and why he's doing it, rather than showing it to us. I also worried that the aforementioned monologue about living in Hawaii as citizens and members of the community, rather than holidaymakers, had marked it as a first-world problems movie. Happily, the film's inciting incident, which I'm not going to divulge, gets the film out of this rut rather nicely, and the script soars away from the drudgery of the unexpectedly clumsy setup.

For a film that is softer than Payne's previous works, it's no less funny, or moving, and the strength of the characters really comes through. It's no surprise that George Clooney is the frontrunner to win the Oscar for Best Actor this year, because his role as Matt places him further than his comfort zone than he has ever been. It's a real exercise of his not-unconsiderable acting abilities. As we've discussed before, he tends to oscillate between playing suave and cunning gents (his default position), or wily and charming dopes, and Matt is neither. He's instantly sympathetic as he tentatively interacts with his daughters, who are also very well played, by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller, and alternatively expresses one-sided rage, grief and sadness at his comatose wife, in her hospital bed.

The film still has sharper moments too, largely centred around Alexandra's idiot boyfriend, Sid, played by Joel Krause. An early scene between the tactless stoner and Elizabeth's distraught father, played briefly but memorably by Robert Forster, made me laugh much harder than anything in many of the comedies I've seen in recent months, even though Krause's performance almost seems to feed the gag to Forster's outraged dignity. But the strength of the chemistry between Clooney and the superb Woodley makes the build-up to the film's penultimate confrontation very compelling, and its final movement almost heartbreaking.

I don't know that I would list it amongst the best movies of the year, but then there are few contenders in this award season about which I can say otherwise. Certainly, there are little oversights throughout the film, that I would like to have seen addressed. It feels almost like we see Alexandra and Scottie exclusively in relation to their dynamic with Matt. Issues about Alexandra being an alcoholic and former drug addict, and Scottie's difficulty in coming to terms with her mother's condition, are raised, sure. But they're never satisfactorily resolved, in a film that ultimately has to show why what's left of this family works well together.

Whatever its tonal difference from his previous works, The Descendants is another strong work from Alexander Payne. Its script, co-written with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, (or Dean Pelton, to you Greendale human beings) might be softer, but it's no less zingy. The audience in the screening I saw largely comprised older viewers, and I would suggest that it's best enjoyed as the kind of film you can see with your parents, or grandparents. The overall experience is such that you can relax into it, and while few may consider it to be Payne's best work, there are far worse ways to make a more mainstream film, than this.

The Descendants is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen The Descendants, why not share your comments below? Which film would I give Best Picture to, you ask? The Grey, says I. Full review coming on Friday...

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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