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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: The Descendants


The Descendants (Four Stars)

U.S.: Alexander Payne, 2011

 Good things often take a while. But should they? It took director-writer Alexander Payne seven years to make a new film  after his Oscar-winning/box-office/critical triumph with Sideways in 2004.

 Considering how good Sideways was, and how much it was liked, that’s a long time. (Too long). Watching Payne’s new movie, The Descendants — a brainy, empathetic, beautifully executed comedy-drama set in Hawaii and starring George Clooney as a well-fixed lawyer from one of the state’s leading families, who has to cope with a lot of sudden family crises — I realized how much I’d missed Payne, how much I would have liked to see two or three new films by him during that interim, and what an important slot he now fills in a movie industry that sometimes doesn’t seem to prize enough the qualities (casually convincing realism, wit, intelligence, humanity) that his movies bring to the table.

George Clooney, the well-liked star/narrator of The Descendants doesn’t have any problems with exposure these days. He’s a guy we do tend to see at least once a year, and in 2011, we saw him twice, in both The Descendants (which I liked) and The Ides of March (which I didn’t). Whatever their level of quality or appeal (and others liked Ides a lot more than I did), those were both thoughtful, serious, intelligent, well-done films with plum roles for Clooney, as a politician facing campaign intrigue and corruption in Ides of March, and as a family man facing the consequencs of death in Descendants.

 It’s possible that neither of these movies would have been made without Clooney’s special star clout. (Jeff Bridges might have been an interesting alternative choice for his part, especially since Jeff’s brother Beau plays Clooney’s genial con-mannish cousin here, and very well.) In the case of The Descendants though, that means we would have lost one of the year’s best movies — a picture that reminds you both of the way movies used to be at their best, and of what, with the screen’s greater candor and realism, they can be now.

Clooney tends to use his clout selectively and wisely, and his instincts have rarely been sharper, artistically, than in his choice of The Descendants. It’s a wonderful movie, and, as an actor, he really shines in it — unselfishly. Even though he is present in every scene and dominates nearly every one of them, Clooney helps the entire excellent ensemble cast shine with him. He’s never been better.

 This is a perfect Clooney role, just as The Hustler or Hud or The Verdict were perfect for Paul Newman, The Sting or the Sundance Kid were perfect for  Robert Redford. Everything that makes Clooney attractive on screen — likeability, smarts, vulnerability, earnestness in the face of chaos, that wry sense of being at the center of things but not letting it carry him away, and the ability to kid himself — is right for the character he‘s playing here: Matthew King, a Honolulu lawyer, who comes from an old respected (Anglo) Hawaiian family, and is the trustee of a huge 25,000 acre stretch of mountain, forests and beach on Kuaui that the majority of  his more spendthrift, less affluent cousins (headed by Beau Bridges, near-perfect too in a wily slob role as Matthew‘s cuz Hugh) want him to sell.

 First though, Matthew has to handle a family tragedy in the making. His adventurous wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), sustained grievous head injuries in a water skiing accident off Waikiki and now lies comatose, on life support — and is due to be unplugged, as per her own wishes, after the doctors’ unanimous verdict that she will never wake up.

This leaves Matthew in charge of his two daughters, the impudent, mouthy-beyond-her-years 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and rebellious, willful and discontent 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailebe Woodley) — an obligation complicated by Scottie‘s precociously foul mouth and Alex‘s propensity for drugs and booze, and her insistence on the presence, during the crisis, of her seemingly dull-witted wedhead boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause).

 Things are bad. But things, however, get even worse. Alex spills a secret she knows about her mom, that Matthew doesn‘t. Elizabeth was having an affair: a revelation that sends Matthew into a desperate tizzy, and sets him on the trail of the guy who cuckolded him — who turns out to be a slick local realtor named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) — and forces him to confront, by turns, some of the worst and best inside him. Also privy to Matthew’s moral and emotional journey: his daughters, who will grow up fast (and have already grown up faster, perhaps, than he likes), his irascible father-in-law (Robert Forster) who thinks Matthew wasn’t good enough for his daughter, Elizabeth’s lover and his wife (Lillard and Judy Greer) and all those cousins lined up behind Hugh, hands out.

 Remember all those names, and the others I mentioned before. Every single one of them, in a more ordinary movie, could and probably would be singled out as among this year’s strongest Oscar nominee candidates. (I’m serious.) But in this case, all of them, from Clooney on down, act so selflessly, immerse themselves so completely and whole-heartedly in their roles, and do them so remarkably well, that one reacts to the entire movie not as a theatrical piece bent on eliciting laughs or tears from us, but as the next closest thing to an actual life experience, something real that elicits those laughs and tears, almost effortlessly, naturally. One responds to the players of The Descendants not as movie types, or even as characters being well played by gifted actors, or as an exceptional dramatis personae, but as people whom we get to know better and more and more deeply as the story progresses.

 The laughter here is as totally earned as the tears. And this great ensemble — starting with Clooney, who plays Matthew with seemingly heartfelt sympathy, knowingness and without vanity, subtly but clearly shifting the focus whenever needed to all his fine cast-mates, giving them all their chance to shine as much as him — never lets us down, not even once. Emotionally, watching The Descendants is like watching a piece of life, slightly elevated and drained of the dull spots. Technically or theatrically, it’s like watching an immaculately executed trapeze act, done with no net, with acrobats who flawlessly soar and whirl and, at the crucial moments, clasp hands.

 That brings us back to the story — which is the kind our movies often don’t give us, except in lower-budgeted more independent projects. Yet everything we see, is deftly pitched toward comedy or sliding into drama or pathos, as when Clooney’s Matthew gets a mad, lost look in his eyes after Alex tells him of the affair, and goes running off, ill-shod, to a neighbor‘s house to cross-examine them about the affair, aware that he’s imposing, aware that he’s guilt-tripping them (for keeping the secret), aware that he looks ridiculous, but not caring. Then there are Clooney‘s never overstressed reactions to the unusual words he hears coming out of his daughters’ mouths. There is the remarkable and surprising dopiness of Krause as Sid, the funniest actor in the movie and The Descndants’ aort-of equivalent of the hilarious Thomas Haden Church in Sideways,  as he moves in our eyes from dull-witted, vapidly grinning pot-jock and thick-headed consort, to someone more savvy, even admirable.

 Yet, despite the way The Descendants gives us something like a real world and something very like real people, despite the way it avoids the slick, trashy, glossy maneuvers that draw huge crowds to the Twilight movies, nothing in the physical production of The Descendants looks skimped on. The movie is set in lush Hawaiian locations, in Honolulu and on Kuaui, on the sunlit surf that rolls in on Waikiki Beach, below the tall palms that wave over the sand, among the wealthy homes with feasts laid out on the lawns, and in an urban district that seems almost self-effacing in its simplicity.

 It’s beautiful — and most of the scenes are underlined with Hawaiian tunes and other popular music. But the images of Hawaii never seem “touristy,“ and it becomes the most apropos of backrops. Matthew undergoes a change during the course of the film, which I won’t describe fully — but it’s both logical and unpredictable, as all good drama (and good comedy) usually are.  We like Matthew, I think (I know I do), but not in a way that precludes all judgment. He’s a good man, we sense, but far from a perfect one. And he‘s been thrust into a situation that, in many ways, demands that he be a better man than he is, or maybe than he’s shown so far. It demands of him a kind of unlikely perfection, even as he behaves, more than once, quite imperfectly. Running off to find the adulterous Brian, taking along his two surprisingly worldly daughters and the affable seeming-doofus Sid, while his wife, disconnected from life support, lies dying, strikes me as a selfishness he should not indulge just then — though, of course we the audience want him to do just that. We‘re all curious too.

 Mostly though, the circumstances of the movie demand that Matthew think almost constantly of others before himself — including the people who have wronged him. He doesn’t always do that — but the movie allows you to feel that he wants to, that he‘s trying, and that, more and more, he’s succeeding. The Descendants shows the good and bad in almost all its characters, which is why, as a unit, this ensemble is so impressive.

 Bridges is a wonderful blowhard, Forster a letter-perfect military bully, with a streak of honor. Lillard reeks with opportunism and self-regard and naked fear. (He’s the Matthew Lillard who was a vicious key player in the first Scream.) Greer is very fine as a seemingly fragile deceived wife who proves somewhat different under stress. And very affecting here, in a movie that values age and experience in a way that many movies don’t, are Krause as Sid and the young actresses Miller and Woodley, who brilliantly play Matthew’s daughters Scottie and Alex. Miller‘s Scottie is both maddening and adorable. Woodley’s Alex is venomous, vulnerable but eventually steadfast. Krause‘s Sid is a trip.

The movie is about Matthew’s generation, descendants of the first Kings. But the kids of course are the other descendants, who will carry the story and the family code even further, until it proves useful again, or hardens and crumbles like old driftwood on the beach.

 In the old Hollywood, the directors whose ability to mix moods, and to meld comedy and drama were like Payne’s — Leo McCarey, Billy Wilder, Frank Capra, Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks, John Ford and others — would often grace us with a movie a year, sometimes more. So have more recent masters of comedy-mixed-with-drama such as Woody Allen and Robert Altman, and today the Coen Brothers. But that’s partly because, the older directors of the Golden Age worked in a factory town, whose rules they mastered, making use of both the corporate confinement and the strange freedom of the classic Hollywood system.

 Payne has mastered the rules of the newer, more decentralized Hollywood. Or at least — after The Book of Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways and now The Descendants — he’s mastered the art of making memorable, smart, warmly human, often absolutely terrific movies, while taking a hell of a lot longer to make them. (Maybe it’s the set-up that’s hard.) We can only hope Payne can be as productive again as a Wilder, as an Allen, and as all the others. We can use his movies.

 The Descendants is not, I think, as good as Sideways, which I thought was one of the ten best films of the first decade of the 2000s. This new film doesn’t have anything like that sublimely goofy humor Paul Giamatti and Church put into their best scenes in Sideways — though sometimes it comes close, with Sid in the car, or with Matthew running to that neighbor’s house, like a desperate turtle pursuing an unreachable hare. It’s a sadder film than Sideways though. What it does have — and this is a really precious gift, one of the best any artist can give us — is a sense of life and humanity, and of human beings in all their funny, melancholy, buoyant, sometimes desperate, happy, sad, exciting and goddam marvelous glory. That’s what a movie should be. Can be. Is, here.

 Well, nice job, everybody. Especially Clooney. Visit us again, Mr. Payne. And don’t take so long next time. Don’t worry, we’ll cut you some slack.

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6 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies: The Descendants”

  1. Matt says:

    Totally overrated – as was Sideways. However, for me, this film was worse. Which is not to say that it is terrible. It is just a sitcom dressed up as Oscar-bait. Saddened to see Payne’s films decline in quality one after the other with Election his greatest achievement.

  2. Walden says:

    I loved it!!!!!!!

    I was born and raised here in Hawaii.
    This film is one of the very few films which comes close to showing Hawaii as a real place with real people.
    With very real feelings.

  3. George Clooney has been a busy man this year. He’s directed and starred in The Ides of March. Now he’s starring in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. In both films, he’s been at his absolute best. On the other hand, Alexander Payne, who’s known for his films About Schmidt and Sideways, has been just the opposite. We haven’t seen him behind the camera in seven years. In The Descendants, he doesn’t let moviegoers down. His latest movie is a moving juxtaposition of Hawaii’s beauty and grace with the pains and stresses of everyday life. For more of my thoughts on The Descendants, check out my review on Sobriety Test Movie Reviews at

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  6. zinger says:

    I would never have thought Best Picture for this or Sideways if I had seen them before hearing the buzz. Clooney doesn’t do his most impressive work when he’s playing a schlub. Contrast “Win-Win,” earlier this year, completely overlooked for Oscar buzz, featuring Paul Giamatti, also as an attorney facing family problems and moral crises on his overflowing personal plate. (Bridges would have gone past the mark and become too much of a schlub.) I kept thinking during this how much more subtle and conflicted a turn Giamatti would have made in Descendants. But I enjoyed it, and cried at the ending, a novelty for me. 3.5 out of 4 stars.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon