Alexander Payne is at it again, creating yet another seriocomic film where humanity is laid bare in all its grit and glory. He takes his time in between films. But like About Schmidt, Election and Sideways before it, The Descendants is worth the wait.
The story concerns the King family of Hawaii, minor local royalty who own a vast track of unblemished Kauai paradise. Matt King, the distracted father, must wake up fast when his risk-taking wife is in a boating accident and languishes in a coma. He struggles to understand his marriage, his daughters and himself as he learns more about what all that distraction cost him.
Oscar nominee George Clooney turns in yet another gritty, ego-less performance, managing to set aside his beauty and charisma to let Matt’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities shine through. The other actors are equally good, especially Shailene Woodley as the troubled teen daughter and Judy Greer as a woman who Matt shares some pain with.
As with the struggling characters in his other films, Payne spares no one, nor does he judge them too harshly. He lets the human frailty, pettiness and love play out in good time, not settling on easy answers or outcomes. The movie is full of little moments; small unspoken hurts, barely-spoken yearning, quiet and abiding love. You find yourself wanting to spend more time with the King family, to check up on them in a year or so and see how they’re doing. This is the mark of a fully-realized film.
Of the Oscar nominated movies this year, I’ve only seen The Artist and I loved it. Either of these movies could win and it would be fine with me.
5 out of 5 stars