As much as I try to go into each film I see with as little prejudice as possible, the advertising campaign for Alexander Payne’s new movie The Descendants had convinced me I wasn’t going to like it. The trailer had an incredibly annoying tone to it, as if it was saying ‘Look! This movie is kooky! Slightly funny! But sad and hard hitting. But also kooky! And a little funny!’ It also didn’t help that the music used in this trailer made me want to vomit.
But the film won me over. In fact, it more than won me over, it convinced me that it is one of the best movies that jostled for space amongst all this year’s other Oscar contenders. It won big at the Golden Globes (although I tend to avoid paying much attention to that idiotic ceremony) and received the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
George Clooney, playing a role for once that isn’t just George Clooney acting like George Clooney, is a father of two girls in a family that has its fair share of problems. They live in Hawaii, but as George’s calming voiceover reminds us, this doesn’t mean their lives are perfect. The mother of this unit has suffered a head injury due to a boating accident and is unconscious in hospital. Near the start of the film it is made clear that she is not going to wake up. It also emerges she was having an affair.
While George and the two feisty girls are trying to deal with this family trauma, they are also faced with the upcoming sale of a mass of land they have inherited through a trust started up by their descendants (ah, see where the title comes from!).
Although the content is gold stock in terms of potential extreme emotional manipulation, Payne avoids anything so crass. He lets the audience be moved by the characters and connect with them as fellow humans, rather than props that suffer one miserable event after another. This empathetic connection is allowed to develop without it being strained or forced by the usual unsubtle tricks many other family dramas throw at their viewers. As we have seen in his previous films Sideways and About Schmidt, Payne is a master at letting his characters breathe and become real, rounded beings.
Of course, all this is made possible by a good script and good actors. Adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel by Payne, Nat Faxton and Jim Rash, the screenplay is easy-going when it comes to structure and pace (and in this case that is not a criticism) and intelligent with the characterisation and moments of bittersweet comedy. Of the performers, the real standout is Shailene Woodley as the troubled older daughter. Woodley has only really done small television roles up until now, but hopefully her moving turn here will bring her more high profile work.
The Descendants isn’t a masterpiece. It has its flaws. Although a little under two hours, it does feel a bit too long. But this is a very small nag, and overall I think most people will be swept up in the drama to be too bothered. This is an involving, clever and touching film about the complexities of parenthood and difficulties of dealing with impending grief and loss. And it doesn’t drag its viewers by the hand every step of the way. It’s an affecting and wonderful film and probably the best thing George Clooney has ever done.
The Descendants (2011), directed by Alexander Payne, is distributed in the UK by Twentieth Century Fox, Certificate 15.