'Descendants' is an effortless blend of comedy, drama
The family from which "The Descendants" derives its name is unlike any family you've ever met, in that they are the generational heirs to a vast Hawaiian fortune in land. The cousins are all living comfortably off the inherited wealth, and squabbling over what exactly they want to do with it.
Nestled within that family is Matt King (played by George Clooney), whose immediate clan, though, may be all too familiar. Infidelity, raising children as a single parent and impending death all rotate around Matt's orbit like some eclipsing constellation. But lest you think "The Descendants" is some doom-and-gloom drama, it should be noted that the film is directed by Alexander Payne, who has handled such sticky situations in past films with the sort of humor and warmth that can only be birthed from moments of holistic realism.
Films such as "Election," "About Schmidt" and "Sideways" have all dealt with the same or similar topics with an elegant-yet-unflinching eye that has made the director one of the most talented working today, coaxing performances that seldom carry a false note, and dealing with situations that are humorous only because they are so painfully authentic.
Matt is in way over his head when it comes to raising his daughters, coping with his familial relationships, and life in general, but he's trying. His first shakeup comes when his wife's boating accident leaves her in a vegetative state, and he must come to terms with just how strained his marriage had become. It's certainly left its mark on his two daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (played by Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), who are both acting out in rebellious ways. Things unravel a bit more in the first few scenes when it is revealed that his wife was also carrying on an affair, unbeknownst to Matt.
Oddly enough, the secret tryst turns out to be the catalyst that somehow ties the tatters of this family a bit tighter. Matt is hurt, furious and intrigued by this discovery of infidelity, and embarks on a quest for answers, with his daughters in tow. This may not be the most healthy impetus for a family vacation, but it's the best he can do given the circumstances.
Where the film excels exceptionally are those darkly humorous moments that only family shares to help cope with difficult times. It's a level of intimacy that never feels scripted or forced, which is credit to both the film's script (which Payne co-wrote with Nat Faxon) and its performers.
As the rebellious, sullen teen Alex, Woodley is the breakout star. Someone should alert Kristen Stewart that this is how you can play pensive and still be appealing. Her hurt and anguish feel real, making the audience understand the source of her behavior.
Judy Greer, an actress known for mostly comedic turns, only has but a few scenes as the wife of a real estate adulterer, but when we witness her breaking point, it carries an emotional heft that should alert other directors to her depth as an actress.
Clooney takes a complex, not entirely sympathetic character (he is a filthy rich land baron living in Hawaii, after all) and makes him feel as real as only an actor of his caliber can. He's conflicted, sometimes rash, lost, bewildered and hurt, but he still has a focus on what is best for his family, however dysfunctional it may be. It's a heartfelt performance that is one of the best he's put to screen.
There are countless scenes in "The Descendants" that, when described, can sound cliched and maudlin, but in the hands of all involved, they find the most narrow window in which to operate to fully realize their emotional impact. They blend comedy and drama almost effortlessly and the audience is there for every uncomfortable and joyfully awkward turn.
The film's final note is one of perfect familial silence, which is equally comfortable, natural and hopeful, without one word being uttered.