Alexander Payne is an unusual proposition; a Hollywood insider with a taste for European arthouse films, a director whose films seem relatively gentle and breezy on the surface, yet hide an acerbic wit and misanthropic worldview below. Often his films will meander along playfully, then Payne will throw a curveball out of the blue. I’m thinking about the lecherous teacher in Election revelling in his students’ ‘Cunt’, the grotesque but humorous copulation of the ‘large’ couple in Sideways and in his newest film, the resolutely un-PC outbursts from stoner dude Sid. I’m not sure many other US filmmakers could get away with what Payne has and still get lauded by the Academy voters.
The Descendants, his latest film, is a less abrasive and more reflective affair than his previous offerings. It follows Matt (George Clooney), a lawyer and his two teenage daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) as they come to terms with his wife’s severe coma. Matt, a descendant of the islands ‘owners’, also has to contend with an imminent decision whether to sell off the island to investors. Over the course of the film, these issues become increasingly interlinked and Matt has some moral quandaries forced upon him.
This sub plot with the island sale is a lesser matter; we’re interested in what will happen to the people on screen, not some courtroom malarkey. Matt’s relationship with his daughters is distant and hands off. The disappearance of the strong parental influence forces him to contemplate his role in their lives, and hopefully, step up to the plate. Payne opts for a more reflexive family drama; he has mainly dispensed with the cutting humour and daft hijinks that made his previous films a delight. This is adult fodder, with no easy answers.
Clooney gives one of his most heartfelt performances as the lead. Payne has said he doesn’t ‘believe’ most actors in Hollywood, but ‘believes’ Clooney. Though Clooney is the archetypal movie star, he has a certain goofiness and good nature that Payne exploits to great effect. Amara Miller is solid as the younger sister, yet it’s Shailene Woodley who steals the show. As the temperamental Alexandra, she exudes an emotional rawness that is reminiscent of Anna Paquin’s recent role in Margaret.
Good though it is, I can’t help but think that Payne’s potential accolades would be much more suitable in recognition of Election or Sideways. This is a quietly poignant, sincere drama yet suffers from the dearth of black humour that characterises his best work.