Film of the Week: The Descendants

Film of the Week:

The Descendants

Alexander Payne’s first film in seven years (yes, it has been that long since Sideways), The Descendants (2011), would be a great film if it wasn’t for its familiarity.  That is not to say that the plot or the casting is necessarily stereotypical, just that it feels like Payne, despite his absence, is still drawn into the same comfort zone:  middle-aged men dealing with existential crises.  This trend began with Election (1999), a film that gave us a portrait of a school teacher (Matthew Broderick) fraying at the edges, thanks to troubles at home and his obnoxious star pupil (Reese Witherspoon).

One of Pauline Kael’s objections to Andrew Sarris’s auteur theory was the idea that real auteurs have reoccurring thematic, narrative, and aesthetic through lines in their work.  By Sarris’s definition, Alexander Payne is an auteur.  However, Kael was quick to point out that is not necessarily a good thing.  After all, reoccurring characteristics run the risk of growing stale.  Isn’t a real auteur someone who tries to reach outside their comfort zone and approach each project uniquely?

I do not agree completely with Sarris or Kael.  Payne is an auteur; his voice (often with co-writer Jim Taylor) for comedy that fuses the hilarious and the bittersweet is perhaps his greatest definable attribute.  However, the unique quality of that voice stems precisely from its unexpected result.  We are given deep observations about life with a Mona Lisa smile in Payne’s work, the juxtaposition of the content and the form often surprises us, which is how Payne can make us laugh aloud at moments that would be typically be depressing as hell (and the opposite).

This time the middle-aged man in a state of panic is a well-off lawyer named Matt King (George Clooney).  Matt’s wife (Patricia Hastie) recently fell into a coma after an accident and she isn’t going to come out of it.  In order to ensure things properly meet their end, Matt picks up his eldest daughter (Shailene Woodley) from private school so that she can keep tabs on her younger sister (Amara Miller) while the family visits other friends and family (Robert Forster, Beau Bridges, and others) to break the news.  Complications arise when Matt discovers his wife was cheating on him with a local realtor (Matthew Lillard), who may or may not be involved in a large land sale that Matt is spearheading.

I’m reluctant to write much more about the plot for two reasons.  First, despite the crises that Matt faces, The Descendants – like most of Payne’s work – often avoids typical dramatic paths.  Secondly, and this is related to the first point, Payne often avoids overplaying certain dramatic beats.  He is neither sentimental nor melodramatic, his grasp of characters too nuanced to force them all into stereotypes.  Of course, the movie is well done, as all of Payne’s films are.  Clooney gives another wonderful performance against type, Shailene Woodley is a talent for whom to watch, and Robert Forster steals the two scenes in which he appears. If this had been Payne’s follow up to Election, it would be a great film.  However, the work he has done since casts a long, beautiful shadow that The Descendants does not even attempt to escape.  It seems content to rest in that shadow, which means it’s a good film for 2011, but it lacks the potency of Sideways or Schmidt to extend that goodness far beyond the short-term.

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