Toronto 2011 Review: Alexander Payne's THE DESCENDANTS

It’s thoughtful, it’s honest and it’s surprisingly tender (avoiding some of the more slightly malicious tone that Payne used to embrace) when it asks us “What do we inherit and how do we pass it on?”

rating: 4.5

€œGive your children enough money so that they do something, but not so much that they will do nothing.€ I find it very intriguing that a man of George Clooney€™s monumental stature can still make films without letting his ego become a part of it. I also find it very interesting that at this year's Toronto Film Festival you can catch two films starring him, one of them he directed himself: The Ides of March. While Mr Clooney is no doubt excellent in it he will most likely be playing a character he is very used to playing. The suave and slick, but edgy smooth talker who is super self confident until the world starts to slowly crumble around him. However, if you trot along the figurative hall you can see George Clooney deliver one of the finest performances of his illustrious career in a role where he isn€™t ashamed to look €œnormal€. The Descendants marks Alexander Payne€™s return to film after the seven year resting period between his last, the Best Picture Oscar nominated Sideways based on the Rex Pickett novel where he also picked up an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. While some have said that The Descendants is indicative of Payne €œmellowing out€ I feel that this perhaps undermines the issue. Alexander has always been pretty comically dark and bitter about a lot of things, but he has always crafted them into films without venom or malice. With The Descendants I imagine he has spent a long time honing the script and making sure he balances all of the varying elements correctly, for fear of diminishing the power that the film inevitably has. This is probably Payne€™s most effective work to date as it feels like growth. The Descendants feels like a sum of Payne€™s past experiences and scripts, there are elements present in all of them, but this new film, in particular feels like he has reached a higher level of understanding when it comes to addressing them. Issues of identity, heritage, and the roles we play in life and our fidelity, and dignity. What Payne and his co writers have delivered is a script perfectly balanced in terms of tone, making a story that feels entirely natural and lifelike. Life is dark, it is funny, it is sad, and it is sweet. The Descendants is all of those things and all the better for it. The story begins with Matt King (Clooney) a successful, but relatively withdrawn lawyer who has an addiction to his work, compared to his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), who has a problem with alcohol and her desire for adrenaline and excitement in her life. Because of this need for danger she has an accident on a jet ski which renders her into a coma. Matt has always been the €œbackup parent€ and has never taken on much responsibility. Now, he is forced to try and manage his two daughters at this time of family crisis. Scottie, 10 years old and the oddball character who is at a difficult age where she is picking up a lot of the dysfunctionality that is around her and Matt is desperately trying to protect and hold on to her innocence, yet having little idea on how to actually achieve this. Compare this to his older daughter, Alex (an excellent performance from Shailene Woodley) who has already started to suffer from her Mother€™s compulsiveness to the point where she has been sent to an expensive boarding school to try and cull her rebellious phase to little avail. Alex is actually a very complex and real character, while some of Scottie€™s moments can feel a little forced and contrived, Alex always hits the mark as that troubled teenager who€™s trying desperately to find her footing in life. It certainly doesn€™t help that her that she has two uninspiring role models to follow. It€™s not like Matt is a bad person, because he really isn€™t. He€™s a man struggling from pressures on him from work, from his girls and from his wife. With his wife laying in a coma it leaves him suddenly having to take on a lot of roles that he was never responsible for, this over burdens him and makes him feel obsolete. Unfortunately for Matt this isn€™t the half of his troubles, as he is also the trustee of a large portion of Hawaiian land that his extended family are trying to sell to developers. Matters are about to get far more complicated though as Alex confesses the reason why she is so angry at her Mother... She was having an affair on Matt and Alex caught them. Immediately what little grip Matt felt he had falls from his grasp as he sprints over to the family friend€™s house to confront them over the issue. Clooney is electric in this scene and actually throughout the entire film. Matt is downtrodden without ever seeming depressing, guilty without overreaching, sad without over sentimentalising and loving without seeming overbearing. Clooney somehow finds the balance and excels. The only thing more heart breaking than seeing a man break down into dramatic tears with a huge operatic score is seeing a man stand there in silence trying to speak, but the words won€™t form, you can see and feel the lump in his throat as he swallows everything. When Matt is informed that his wife will never wake up he spends a large portion of the film on a trip with Alex, Scottie and Alex€™s stoner boyfriend Sid, as they go around informing friends and family that she is going to die as they will be switching the machines off. At the same time Matt and Alex try and track down Bryan Speer (Matthew Lillard) the man who Elizabeth was having an affair with. Matt is desperate to confront the man, but he can€™t really articulate why. He is a good man and wants to offer Bryan the chance to say Goodbye. Matt is a brilliant character because he is a struggling man, with so many subtle nuances bubbling beneath the surface. He feels betrayed that she had an affair, but at the same time he feels like he was responsible for driving her away. He feels guilty that even though he loves her, perhaps she never knew that. He wasn€™t a great husband and she will die knowing that and perhaps not knowing how much he cared. She never got the chance to explain the affair and they never had a chance to talk things out. It€™s hard to forgive someone when essentially you are so confused you€™re not sure whether you should be forgiving her or yourself. The Descendants is a very powerful and an emotionally sophisticated movie that never undermines you as a viewer. A lot of the characters and situations are very realistic and relatable and you will feel genuinely touched by the end of the film. It€™s also a very funny film when it wants to be, striking that perfect balance. Ultimately the best compliment you can give The Descendants is it€™s a film that takes a concept that under the control of any other director would be incredibly contrived and mishandled, instead Payne has achieved a very natural feeling film about family, forgiveness and a meditation on the bonds, roles and responsibilities we all share in life. It€™s thoughtful, it€™s honest and it€™s surprisingly tender (avoiding some of the more slightly malicious tone that Payne used to embrace) when it asks us €œWhat do we inherit and how do we pass it on?€ Mr Payne, welcome back good sir. Please don€™t make me wait another 7 years for your next film.
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