It wasn’t much more than seven years ago when Alexander Payne blew audiences away with his masterpiece “Sideways.” His witty, yet heartbreaking story, coupled with sharp and intricate dialogue won Payne the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Now, Payne returns in top form with his adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ “The Descendants.” Payne has joined Nate Faxon and Jim Rash in this adaptation of the 2007 novel. The script isn’t perfect, but the actors do the best they can to elevate the material as much as possible.
“The Descendants” follows Matt King, a man whose wife has suffered from a boating accident and is in a coma from which she won’t wake up. King has to cope with being the “back-up parent” to his two daughters, played by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller. Amidst the grief, Matt learns that his wife has been having an illicit affair. The family makes the journey across the islands of Hawaii to find out who this other man is, and create a unique bond along the way.
Clooney carries the film with grace and a quiet pain. His character’s journey is unique and Clooney handles every difficult emotion, from sadness to anger to anxiety, with ease. The most compelling aspect of the story is Matt’s relationship with his oldest daughter Alexandra (Woodley). Woodley handles the role far beyond her experience. The most touching and powerful scene in the film is when Matt informs Alexandra of their mother’s condition, while Alex is taking a dip in the family pool. The scene exemplifies everything Payne is trying to convey: heartbreak, the strain of a relationship, and Alex’s quiet pain.
However, there is a bit of an identity crisis. If Payne and company had stuck to the more dramatic elements of the script as opposed to forced moments of comedic relief, the film’s message would had been more effective; particularly out of place moments are a line from Miller’s character during an intense moment between Clooney and Woodley, where she yells “you got served” and the entire character of Sid (Nick Krause). Sid acted as a companion for the family during the entire film, and, more times than not, distracted from the heart of the story. His inclusion, and his relationship to Alexandra, is still a mystery to me. The story did not need to be funny, and the moments where it tried came off as awkward and unnatural. Also a subplot involving real-estate ends up playing second fiddle to the core conflict.
Payne’s films often leave audiences with much to discuss and a better understanding of the human condition. Payne’s subtle and effective direction, coupled with the powerhouse performances from Clooney and Woodley, make “The Descendants” one of the year’s most precious gems.