Mark Twain wrote: “There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Inside of the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy, and a tragedy.” Comedy, drama, tragedy, life journeys and crossroads are often no better explored in film than in the movies of Alexander Payne (“Sideways”, “About Schmidt”). His latest, “The Descendants,” just might be his best yet.
“The Descendants” is a remarkable film on many levels. First, George Clooney gives one heck of a performance. Just like the nuanced screenplay, Clooney, often within the same scene, will make you laugh out loud then on a dime move you to tears. The screenplay by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, based on the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, is quirky enough to warrant bursts of laughter but manages such delicate moments of tenderness to be a nonstop seesaw of emotion.
The film carries similar themes to most of Payne’s previous films, and even to his hit HBO series “Hung.” Clooney plays Matt King, a middle-aged man whose life appears to have unnoticeably veered off course. When his estranged wife is put on life support after a tragic boating accident, he must course-correct, reconnect with his two children and deal with the blow that not only is his wife going to die, but she was in love with another man.
Using Hawaii as the perfect setting, “The Descendants” magnifies that even in paradise time is not absolute and everyone, no matter where on Earth, has family problems. Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller are a joy to watch as Clooney’s two daughters. As naïve, but not quite innocent, children they counter Clooney’s restrained emotions and help their father, as well as the audience, find some joy and solace along our journey.
“The Descendants” is a simple film. Yet it is a rich and subtly layered story, exploring staying true to one’s principles while finding common ground; family hardships; the power of land and heritage; forgiveness; and betrayal.
Clooney and Payne are a perfect combo. Together, they put a smile on your face and tears in your eyes. “The Descendants” is poignant filmmaking at its finest, and one of the best films of the year.