‘The Descendants’ is Beautifully Flawed

by on March 7th, 2015
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“The Descendants” is filled with glorious flaws. From the strangely clumsy exposition to the at times awkward voiceover narration to the occasionally intrusive score, the flaws are undeniable no matter how much you may like the movie.

These and similar flaws are included in every film that writer-director Alexander Payne has made. Yet, we still consider him a genius as a filmmaker. Why? Because, every mistake, every imperfection of an Alexander Payne film is a reflection of the mistakes and imperfections of his oh so compelling characters.

George Clooney stars in “The Descendants” as Matt King. Matt’s life is far from paradise; despite the fact that he owns a large stretch of what is undoubtedly considered paradise. Matt lives in Hawaii and while his opening narration is meant to convey the ugly side of Hawaii, we will soon see the stretch that Matt’s family owns and we see the side of the island that give it its reputation.

Matt’s personal life reflects the ugly side of things. Matt’s wife is in a coma following a boating accident. This leaves Matt in charge of his youngest daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller) for the first time in years. It’s not that Matt’s a bad father he’s just never been called upon to be a very good father.

Matt’s oldest daughter, Alex (Shailene Woodley) is away at boarding school but with her mother’s health failing Matt decides to bring her home; whether she wants to come home or not. Alex knows something that her father doesn’t. It’s the reason Alex has been acting out: Matt’s wife was cheating on him.

This revelation sets the story of “The Descendants” in motion as Matt and Alex for a strange bond over trying to find the man who his wife was sleeping with and considering leaving him for. The search leads to a trip to Matt’s fabled track of land; which in a strange twist has also drawn the attention of his wife’s lover.

Running parallel to the cuckolding story is that of Matt and his family and Matt’s decision about who to sell his family’s land to or whether to sell it at all. The land issue gives “The Descendants” grounding in Hawaiian history that is surprisingly resonant and well founded.

George Clooney’s performance as Matt is phenomenal. While you will have to suspend belief that a woman would really leave Clooney for Matthew Lillard Clooney sells the part with panache and a striking mix of drama and good humor. There is darkness to the humor of “The Descendants” that can be hard to take but Clooney is the best possible guide over the rough spots.

“The Descendants” is undoubtedly flawed but I’ve come to expect flaws from Alexander Payne. Alexander Payne’s focus is on allowing his actors the space to create indelible characters that employ his words to the best comic or dramatic purpose. These characters, like Matt and Alex, are more often than not so wildly compelling that the flawed directions and moments of clumsiness fade away in their presence.

I was reminded often during “The Descendants” of Alexander Payne’s “About Schmidt” starring Jack Nicholson. Like “The Descendants,” “About Schmidt” employs an occasional voiceover that is at times a little too knowing and cute. The exposition of “About Schmidt” is heavy-handed in the same way it is in “The Descendants.”

And, as in “The Descendants,” “About Schmidt” ends on an awkward yet peaceful beat. I love “About Schmidt.” The flaws of that film are the flaws of the main character played by Jack Nicholson. Truly, “About Schmidt” would be less of a film without these flaws; without Alexander Payne’s willingness to let his film be flawed in the same ways his characters are flawed.

The same can be said of “The Descendants” where the clumsy exposition reflects the clumsiness of Matt King as he approaches this strange and unfamiliar place in his life. George Clooney is brilliant at bringing Matt’s problems to the surface with quiet dignity that gets punctured with strong comic effect.

“The Descendants,” warts and all, is a terrific film populated by compelling characters that carry the ability to make you laugh or cry. The imperfections are glaring but easy to forgive because these characters are so very compelling.

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