I know that I’m in the minority on this, but I just didn’t find Sideways to be all that impressive. That isn’t to say I thought it was a bad film, I just didn’t find it as funny, interesting, or memorable as so many seem to think it is. So, when Alexander Payne put another film into the works, I was decidedly apathetic about the news. In fact, I found it much more interesting that the film was co-written by the transvestite dean of Greendale himself, Jim Rash.
All told, I was inclined to let the film slide when it finally came to Portland. But then it started getting Oscar buzz and my desire to stay in the loop won out. Also, my mom insisted on a review, for whatever reason.
So, The Descendants. Our story for tonight is set in modern-day Hawaii, which has a very well-known reputation for being a tropical paradise. Though that aspect of the archipelago is occasionally present in the gorgeous cinematography, for the most part — as George Clooney so eloquently puts it in the opening voice-over — “paradise can go fuck itself.”
Clooney plays Matt King, a very successful lawyer who specializes in real estate. He’s also a direct descendant of the great King Kamehameha, and that lineage comes with a huge tract of pristine Hawaiian land that’s been held in trust since the 1800s. Alas, the trust is set to expire in a very short amount of time. All eight islands are watching to see what will be done with this multi-million dollar piece of real estate, and Matt has a horde of freeloading cousins (one of whom is played by Beau Bridges) who are all angling for the deal that will get them the most money and political favors. Still, Matt is the sole trustee, which means that the final decision rests with him and him alone.
Naturally, all of this means that Matt has been very busy of late, and frequently away from home. Matt went on one particularly long business trip, and that’s when everything really hit the fan.
While he was away, Matt’s wife (Elizabeth King, played by Patricia Hastie) got in a boating accident. Her injuries put her in a persistent vegetative state, and the doctors have run out of options. Before he takes the step of pulling the plug, Matt naturally looks to his family for support. He’s determined to personally spread the news about his wife’s impending death and to make sure that everyone who loved her has a chance to say goodbye. Especially Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard).
Who’s Brian Speer? Well, it seems that while Elizabeth was drinking and boat racing and what have you, she was also cheating on her husband. With Matthew Lillard. Ouch.
Anyway, Matt sets out to learn more about Brian while trying to make peace with his dying wife’s sins. Accompanying him is his youngest daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), an impressionable 10-year-old whose grief has been manifesting in some rather disturbing ways; Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), a very troubled teenager who had an all-out shouting match with her mom about the affair shortly before the accident; and Sid (Nick Krause), a thoroughly stupid friend of Alexandra’s.
Though the Brian Speer storyline is the movie’s main thread, it’s really just a means of moving the other storylines forward. By far the two most important storylines in the film are the real-estate deal and the problems that Matt and his daughters are going through. In the former storyline, the real estate represents the legacy of Matt’s ancestors. Considering how long that land has been kept and guarded by the family, has the time finally come to let it go? If not, then what would be the best way to maintain respect for his long-dead ancestors? Then there’s the latter storyline, which is all about the pain that loved ones cause each other, and the strategic use of confessions, self-delusions, pardons, and outright lies to cope with that pain.
In both storylines, Matt is perfectly situated to be the mediator. It’s his job to facilitate the passing from the old (his ancestors and his wife) to the new (his cousins and his daughters). It’s his responsibility to maintain past legacies (that of his ancestors, which is ancient history, and that of his wife, which is still being written) while ensuring what’s best for his current relations going forward.
I think it’s fair to say that the ultimate theme of this movie is that of letting go. Not just letting go of dying loved ones, but letting go of transgressions as well. The film posits that pain inflicted by loved ones only hurts so much precisely because we love them. Yet when all is said and done, we really don’t have a choice but to forgive petty grudges and arguments, since blood really is thicker than water.
George Clooney does an admirable job carrying this movie, but he didn’t seem to blend into the role very well. There was never any point when I was able to forget that I was watching George Clooney. The same could be said of Beau Bridges, who shows up for a brief amount of time to play Beau Bridges. Believe it or not, both of these accomplished actors get upstaged by Shailene Woodley, who breaks out in a big way with this film. Don’t be fooled by her CV (which includes “The O.C.,” “Jack & Bobby,” and “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” among others in that vein), this actress has one killer emotional range. She’s definitely one to watch for.
Also appearing is Robert Forster, whom I honestly mistook for R. Lee Ermey in the role of Matt’s father-in-law. Anyway, Forster does a remarkable job playing a man who’s too proud to see his prized daughter as anything but flawless. The lovely and talented Judy Greer also turns in a brief yet noteworthy performance, though I’m loathe to disclose her role. I feel that I should also give a nod to Nick Krause. Sid was made into a character who’s unpleasant to be around, yet he’s bearable because he’s too stupid to know any better and because the other characters never hesitate to take the piss out of him. Plus, he shows some moments of clarity where it counts, so there’s that.
Finally, I’ve got to talk about Matthew Lillard’s character. I’ve seen a lot of movies that would build up some unseen character as a truly despicable person, only to finally reveal that the guy isn’t all that bad in person. Not here. Lillard plays Brian as a wimpy dope who cheated on his beautiful family for absolutely no reason. I’d call foul for any other movie, but this film is actually very smart to play the affair as a horribly stupid mistake. After all, if Elizabeth had any understandable or obvious excuse for the affair, it would make forgiving her far too easy, thereby cheapening the movie’s aforementioned themes.
Visually, the movie is absolutely staggering from start to finish. The Hawaiian setting lends itself to some beautiful scenery, and DOP Phedon Papamichael is very smart about using it. Meanwhile, the script does an amazing job at building characters while juggling multiple storylines, and the film’s balance of tragedy and comedy is sublime. However, I feel like the movie really sags in the third act, as this movie takes forever to end. In fact, I’m convinced that if someone hadn’t tacked the end credits onto the film’s last shot, the movie would’ve just kept going and going.
All told, The Descendants is a very sweet movie. The visuals are astounding, the performances are all very good, and the script is wonderfully funny and heartfelt in equal measure. It can get a touch slow and/or cliche at times, but this is absolutely a film worth checking out.