Oscar 2011: The Descendants

A beautifully written, splendidly acted serio-comedy about love, family, loss, forgiveness, and redemption, “The Descendants” adds another glorious panel to Alexander Payne’s already distinguished, if still brief, career.

Trailer: www.emanuellevy.com/?attachment_id=45358

World-premiering at the Telluride Film Fest last weekend and playing at the Toronto Film Fest this weekend, “The Descendants” also serves as closing night of the prestigious New York Film Fest in October.  The estimable Fox Searchlight, which did a fantastic marketing job with Payne’s 2004 Oscar-winning “Sideways,” will release “The Descendants” on November 23 (it’s a perfect movie to watch during the Thanksgiving and Christmas Holidays).

With strong critical support and the right marketing and handling, “The Descendats,” which is broad, accessible, enjoyable, and entertaining, could become Payne’s top commercial performer, surpassing the grosses of  “Sideways,” and perhaps even reaching the level of success achieved Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan,” also released by Fox Searchlight.   Positive word-of-mouth should prove instrumental in marketing this multi-generational tale, likely to appeal to adult as well as younger viewers.

Start marking your Oscar ballots for a film that’s likely to be nominated in all the major categories: Best Picture, Best Director for Payne, Best Screenplay, Bet Actor for George Clooney, Supporting Actress for Shailene Woodley, who’s simply a revelation.

Payne’s first theatrical film in seven years (why is he so slow?), “The Descendants” navigates smoothly, delicately, and gracefully a turf that has become Payne’s specialty, an emotionally affective and effective hybrid of tragedy and comedy, melodrama and satire, tear-jerker and enlightening exploration of nothing short of the meaning of life, what’s important, what’s trivial, and so on.  There are at least two scenes that are so touching they’ll bring tears to your eyes, but in a cathartic way.  Coming to think about it, the whole movie is an experience in and of catharsis.

This time around, Payne works closer to the humanist-existentialist tradition of the great French filmmaker Jean Renoir (“Rules of the Game,” “La Grande Illusion”), known for his non-judgmental philosophy of “Everyone has his own reasons,” than the American satirist Preston Sturges, to whom he has been compared before.

If “The Descendants” was more impressive or distinctive visually, it would have been a masterpiece.  But, alas, Payne is an auteur in a thematic, but not stylisti,  way. Hiw work reveals continuities in narrative strategy, themes and issues, characters, and tone. In “The Descendants,” Payne shows problems with rhythm and pacing; the film drags, particularly in the second hour, and there are too many pauses, too many shots of the beautiful landscape of Hawaii, too many reaction shots, which disrupt the flow of the narrative.

Overall, I still think that Payne’s 1999 “Election,” ironically his only studio (Paramount) picture is his most original and most accomplished film to date in every way, conception, execution, acting, speed and tempo.

As I have pointed many times before, Payne’s output is quite small, only five features in 15 years, but each one of his films is good, if not excellent, including his little-seen 1996 Sundance Fest debut, “Citizen Ruth,” a satire about abortion that Miramax botched with its poor marketing and limited release.

The best assets of the new film film are the multi-layered, multi nuanced narrative, credited to Payne, Fat Nixon, and Jim Rush, based on the novel by Karl Hart Hemmings (which I have not read), and the high-caliber acting of the two central roles, played by Clooney and Woodley, though the rest of the cast is also good.  If memory serves, this is the first film that’s not co-written with Jim Taylor, Payne’s longtime partner, who credited as producer.

Whether or not they are set on the road, all of Payne’s films are road movies about journeys of self-discovery.  This has been the consistent pattern of the otherwise widely divergent “Citizen Ruth,” “Election, “About Schmidt,” “Sideways,” and now “The Descendants,” which is both literally and figuratively a road movie.  Clooney’s character and his daughters go from island to island in Hawaii.

Thematically, “The Descendants” bears resemblance to “About Schmidt,” the tale of an older, recently-retired ordinary man (played by the extraordinary Jack Nicholson), an unexceptional American, who decides to assume greater control over his life—before it’s too late.

In “The Descendants,” Clooney submerges completely his good looks, suave manners, and star persona in playing an ordinary man, a lawyer, who’s closer in age to his own biological age; Clooney is 50 and at the prime of his career.  And I think it’s time for us to stop describing him as “the closest contemporary Hollywood has to a star like Cary Grant,” because he is way beyond.   Grant, one of my favorite stars, seldom deviated from his established onscreen persona and seldom took the risks that Clooney has been taking for a decade now.

As the estranged husband whose wife has been in coma for 23 days, and asa  father alienated from his two girls, Clooney gives yet another stellar, Oscar-caliber performance. This is Clooney’s “big year,” excelling as he does as a producer, director, co-writer, and actor in the noirish political thriller, “The ides of March,” which is also a terrific film (See our review). 

Set in various picaresque locations in Hawaii, “The Descendants” is the darkly humorous tale of the journey taken by  Matt King, an initially indifferent husband and father of two girls, who is forced to dig deep and re-examine his past, while at the same time plan and embrace his future when his wife suffers a boating accident off of Waikiki. In the pre-credit sequence, we see the wife having fun in the aqua water of Hawaii; for the rest of the film, she is in the hospital, in coma, unable to move or to talk, and payne deserves credit for granting her close-ups as she lies in bed, motionless.

The tragic event, and its various implications, leads to Matt’s examination of self and others (including cheating wife and her lover) and eventually redemption and self-discovery, just as Schmidt did in Payne’s 2002 film.   These painful processes are manifest in Matt’s efforts at rapprochement with his young daughters, while wrestling with a decision of whether or not to sell the family’s land, handed down to him from Hawaiian royalty and missionaries.

A longer review will be published later today.


Matt King – George Clooney
Alexandra King – Shailene Woodley
Scottie King – Amara Miller
Sid – Nick Krause
Elizabeth King – Patricia Hastie
Cousin Hugh – Beau Bridges
Brian Speer – Matthew Lillard
Julie Speer – Judy Greer


A Fox Searchlight release and presentation of an Ad Hominem Enterprises production in association with Little Blair Prods. and Ingenious Film Partners, made in association with Dune Entertainment.

Produced by Jim Burke, Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor.

Co-producer, George Parra.

Directed by Alexander Payne.

Screenplay, Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings.

Camera, Phedon Papamichael.

Editor, Kevin Tent.

Music supervisor, Dondi Bastone.

Production designer, Jane Anne Stewart; art director, Timothy T.K. Kirkpatrick; set decorator, Matt Callahan; costume designer, Wendy Chuck;

Sound, Jose Antonio Garcia; supervising sound editor, Frank Gaeta; re-recording mixer, Patrick Cyccone.

Stunt coordinator, Brian L. Keaulana.

Visual effects supervisor, Mark Dornfeld; visual effects, Custom Film Effects.

Associate producer, Tracy Boyd.

 Casting, John Jackson.

MPAA Rating: R.

Running time: 115 Minutes.