The trailer wrongly presented The Descendants as a quirky commercial for Hawaii featuring George Clooney. Alexander Payne’s film is in fact much more hard hitting and compelling as it explores themes of loss, family and adultery. I’m not going to lie; the breath-taking Hawaiian backdrop did leave me desperately wanting to pack my suitcase and emigrate. Yet, it is refreshing to see Hollywood unearth the human flaws that go on underneath its postcard perfect image. “How can they possibly think our families are less screwed up? Our heartaches, less painful?” The beauty of Hawaii provides the perfect backdrop for the shattered veneer of family life.
Clooney plays Matt, a wealthy lawyer and land baron who is left to piece together the shreds of his life after a tragic accident which leaves his wife on life support. We witness his struggle to reconnect with his increasingly wayward daughters who he had unconsciously neglected. The film is incredibly human in that it does not seek to pretend that overcoming grief is easy. Unlike many film characters, Matt cannot simply apologise and expect an artificial reconciliation with his family. Payne brutally rips off the cinematic band aid, leaving Clooney’s wounds wide open just as they would be in reality.
George Clooney gives the performance of a lifetime as his character journeys from desperate anger to restorative forgiveness. I see Clooney as the modern day Cary Grant, able to bring charm to any role, and this talent elevates the desperate situation of Matt as he struggles with torturous grief and the agonising wounds of betrayal.
Payne perfectly maintains a balance between dark humour and realistic drama. The film succeeds in its abandonment of sentimentality and its investment in raw human emotion. Payne brings complexity to a heart-breaking situation as Matt recognises that his wife’s lover is not an evil adulterer but a morally flawed human being. Shailene Woodley especially shines in her breakout role as Clooney’s troubled daughter and I would not be surprised if we see more of her in the future. Nick Crause also triumphs in adding depth to his role as Woodley’s clichéd dim witted surfer boyfriend. I could not stand his character at the beginning of the movie but had thawed towards his innocent charm by the time the credits rolled.
Like the turbulent characters, the film does have its flaws. Judy Greer’s reappearance as the betrayed wife seems a bit contrived as she unconvincingly forgives Matt’s wife on her death bed. It seems like a last minute attempt to reconcile the other family’s problems but only works to irritatingly steal time away from the absorbing emotional reunion of Matt’s family. Clooney’s invitingly honest narration successfully draws the viewer into his crumbling paradise. Ultimately the film is a masterpiece, which reluctantly invites the audience to witness the rebirth of a fragmented family after a painful loss.
The Descendants (2011), directed by Alexander Payne, is distributed in the UK by Twentieth Century Fox, Certificate 15.