Time To Say Goodbye: The Fragility of Family Ties in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants

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The revamped King family, from left to right: Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), Matt (George Clooney), Scottie (Amara Miller), and their friend Sid (Nick Krause).

Women tend to love George Clooney because of his looks and demeanor, and understandably so. The average cinemagoer – males included – likes him because he has never shied away from ruining his outer appearance for the sake of a role in a risky film. Ever since his career-defining part as Dr. Doug Ross in the successful 1990s TV show Emergency Room, Clooney has carefully chosen his projects.

Other than the occasional blockbusters, such as Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Trilogy or Joel Schumacher’s grandiose failure Batman & Robin (in which he appeared as the masked superhero), most of Clooney’s movies have been indie flicks so far – from Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn, Steven Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight, Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? in the last years of the old millennium to the more recent The Ides Of March (with himself at the helm) or Anton Corbijn’s The American.

The Oscar-winning The Descendants (best writing, adapted screenplay) by director Alexander Payne makes no exception. The pairing of the talented but slow-paced filmmaker and one of Hollywood’s biggest stars is a stroke of genius. Although he didn’t win the Academy Award as best leading man, his nomination was more than justified. Clooney excels as struggling family father Matt King, a wealthy lawyer and land baron from Hawaii whose whole life is turned upside down when his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) falls into a coma after a boat accident.

Even though the cast delivers an exceptional performance overall, it is essentially Clooney who has to carry The Descendants. Except for Beau Bridges and Robert Forster is very small parts, most of the other actors are unknown quantities in the movie industry. The discovery of the film, however, might be 19-year old Shailene Woodley as King’s rebellious teenage daughter Alexandra. Her transformation is remarkable. She becomes her father’s chief associate during the time of trials, especially after Matt learns about his wife cheating on him.

Payne patiently guides his characters through the world he has created and its pitfalls. King doesn’t only have to take care of his temperamental younger daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) with the help of volatile Alexandra and her slow-witted friend Sid (Nick Krause). He is also in charge of a large bulk of land he’s supposed to sell to a real estate developer on behalf of the clan – just to find out that the man’s business partner Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) is his comatose wife’s lover.

Director Jason Reitman, with whom Clooney worked on Up In The Air, once remarked, ‘Do you know how many times I get asked if I want to do Ghostbusters 3?[1] Looking at my career so far, I mean if you just looked at my two films, I would make the most boring Ghostbusters movie. It would just be people talking about ghosts, there wouldn’t be any ghost-hunting in it.’ The same could be said about Payne, and in a way, that’s a good thing.

Today’s Hollywood is so full of past-paced, action-laden, but essentially soulless blockbusters that The Descendants is a breath of fresh air. Despite the fact that it won an Oscar and two Golden Globes (best drama and best leading man in a drama), it should have received more acclaim. It certainly would have been more deserving than some of the candidates that were showered in accolades. Payne doesn’t often come up with a new feature. Yet if he does, it’s usually a masterpiece. See About Schmidt and Sideways. Feel free to add The Descendants to that list.

[1] That Reitman was asked that question is understandable, for his father Ivan directed the first two Ghostbusters parts.