Alexander Payne (“Election,” “About Schmidt,” and a favorite of mine called “Sideways”) co-writes and directs this very funny but also very touching and thoroughly rewarding film adapted from a 2007 novel written by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have penned one of the more beautifully written movie scripts of 2011, and the Academy clearly thinks so to, as it recently took home the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. To the naked eye, it has a great number of isolated story threads and plot elements that, on the surface, seem to have no correlation to one another. But as the viewer goes in for a closer inspection, it turns out to be a big game of Rock Paper Scissors where intervention in one crisis has a tremendous amount of influence on another.
George Clooney does magnificent work as Matt King, a lawyer from Hawaii whose immeasurable troubles just keep stacking on top of one another with every passing day. But I’m already getting ahead of myself, so let us reel back a bit. Matt is a descendant of one of Hawaii’s first land-owning families, and he (as well as the other descendants) have inherited a massive plot of lush and fertile land on one of the islands through a family trust. But after years of ownership, the family members are thinking of closing a big business deal with some land developers to sell their numerous acres. They could use the money, and hey, it’s not like the land is being used for anything else other than the beautiful view, so why not. Matt holds all the cards, and he has the final say-so on this transaction.
But then a big monkey wrench gets thrown into the machine. Matt’s wife Elizabeth gets involved in a bad boating accident that places her in a comatose state. Naturally, the incident brings work to an abrupt halt. The hospital has the woman hooked up to life support, everyone and their mother is paying her a visit, and someone is even seen applying makeup to Elizabeth’s sallow face. His wife’s accident renders Matt the only responsible adult to look after his two daughters, Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley).
In theory, this doesn’t sound like a big problem. These girls are ten and seventeen years old, respectively, so they should at least know what resembles proper behavior, right? Well, handling these high-maintenance children is easier said than done, and that’s putting it lightly. Scottie is misbehaving in school and texting extremely inappropriate messages to her classmates, presumably catalyzed as a result of her mother’s accident. Alex, on the other hand, is a rebellious, foul-mouthed teenager who has the propensity to get into drugs and alcohol at her boarding school. “What is it that makes all the women in my life want to destroy themselves,” Matt wonders in a running commentary.
Matt acts as a single parent while dealing with everything that’s going on all around him, until he is given the unfortunate news that he will have to pull the plug on Elizabeth’s support system, as treatment doesn’t seem to be yielding any progress. So then there’s the matter of informing all family and friends of his wife’s inevitable passing. It is around this time that Alex drops the major bombshell on her father’s world that Elizabeth had been cheating on him in the time leading up to her coma...say what?
According to her firsthand account, Alex had seen her own mother with another man one night in Kaua’i and never brought it to her father’s attention until now. In fact, Alex and Elizabeth got into a heated argument about her affair just days (or maybe weeks) before the little boating mishap. Oy vey, the stress and awkwardness never ends! After a little bit of snooping, he finds out that the man’s name is Brian Speer (briefly played by Shaggy...er, I mean Matthew Lillard) and he decides that it is in his best interest if he contacts the guy in some way and informs him that Elizabeth’s days are numbered if he wants to see her one last time.
Surprisingly, Lillard works pretty great when he is dialing back his characteristically goofy persona, and I would actually like to see him in more subtle roles of this nature. The supporting roles here are great as well. Some of which include Robert Forster as Elizabeth’s father who never seems to have taken a liking to the man his daughter chose to wed, Beau Bridges as good ol’ cousin Hugh, a pretty kindly dude but also an incredibly passionate proponent for selling the tract of land, and Nick Krause as Alex’s few-fries-short-of-a-Happy-Meal friend Sid. This kid infuses some of the more broad comic relief into the otherwise somber story as he accompanies the King family in their excursions to the other Hawaiian islands. His interplay with Elizabeth’s angry father in one scene is nothing short of priceless.
As with most of Alexander Payne’s other films, “The Descendants” walks that rigid line between comedy and drama. Yet it manages to keep a steady balance in between the two and is actually effective in both camps. Like another film from last year “50/50” (which is also happens to be my number one film of 2011), it all rests in the reality and human touch to each scenario. If a scene calls for comedy, the humor will come naturally. Same with the drama. I really enjoy this kind of tactic, as the viewer is never really quite sure of what tone a scene will be going for until it plays out in front of them. An example is the confrontation scene between Matt and Brian Speer. Like Matt states earlier, he himself isn’t even sure of how he would handle things if he had a moment with this guy who caused his wife to cheat. Neither does the audience.
After the trials and adversities that this family goes through over this unyielding time period, the film comes to an emotionally resonant conclusion. The final shot is one that merely lingers on the family of three for an extended period of time, silently, poignantly, wordlessly. I did not get a sense that they have evolved into a perfect family, a great family, or even one that has yet dropped the prefix ‘dys’ out of the word ‘dysfunctional.’ But whereas we started with a feuding triumvirate who were totally unwilling to cooperate with one another, we now have what can be formally classified as a family. They’ve grown to respect one another’s boundaries and have come to realize that they are the only family they’re stuck with. “The Descendants” is a great movie.