Published Sep 15, 2011Now that Alexander Payne seems to have almost perfected his particular tonal balance of pathos and satire, his explorations of American mundanity-cum-absurdity come off with far more sincerity and Award-season grace than his earlier, nastier (but fun) works like Citizen Ruth and Election.
It's as though he's reinvented the American Beauty wheel with The Descendants, having fun with crass dialogue and embarrassingly hilarious scenarios while hitting the nail on the head of the human condition, showing just how much of a difference a single life makes.
Said life is that of Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie), a wife and mother of two that winds up on life support, in a coma, before the opening credits. Her husband, Matt (George Clooney), is unprepared for single parenthood, having been absent at work for several years, which becomes abundantly clear while dealing with the teachers and classmates of pottie-mouthed daughter Scottie (Amara Miller), who has a tendency to exclaim "twat!" when not texting insults about pubes to less popular students.
Pulling older daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, who is sure to get a Best Supporting Actress nod for this) out of school to help him parent while the matriarch lays in a hospital bed, he learns about an affair on the part of his wife and proceeds to seek out the unnamed man as a means of avoiding the reality of Elizabeth's impending death.
While the title — The Descendants — refers to a piece of land in Hawaii that Matt King is the trustee for, noting his inheriting of, rather than earning, the logicality applies to the life themes throughout, acknowledging both the effect we have on those around us as well as the absurdity of it all. It's a fairly broad concept, which is fine for a film that only aims to give a unifying notion of appreciating life and family while you have it.
And in doing this, Payne succeeds admirably, creating a genuinely amusing and touching portrait of the insanity and idiosyncrasy that grief can bring out in us. There are as many laugh-out-loud moments as there are those of verbalized human insight
It's just unfortunate that it isn't much more than this and it features some character contrivances, such as a teen friend surfer dude, whose Bill & Ted impression stands out as exceedingly clumsy and wrongheaded. (Fox)