Sideways came out in 2004, which was the last Alexander Payne feature film until The Descendants, which opens today. As much as I loved Election I was never clamoring for his return to the silver screen but this was a reminder of why Payne is such a crafted filmmaker.
His films are never flashy or containing camera moves that one can point to and say, “That’s so Payne.” Instead he finds a story that he finds personal and tells it to the best of his ability. He’s very much like Sidney Lumet in that regard, if Lumet was only focused on smaller stories. Despite filming in some gorgeous areas of Hawaii that could be used for cinematic escapades, The Descendants is a very intimate story about a father and his two daughters.
George Clooney tones down his charisma to play Matt King, a man stuck in many crossroads. His wife is in a coma after a boating accident. He is preparing to sell a large stretch of land that has been in his family for years. While he’s alone in trying to figure out what to do he comes to terms with how clueless he is.
With the dire state of the wife, it seems like this would be a movie about loss. Yet the characters are always looking backwards to the happy and difficult moments of their lives or wondering could happen next to them. They try to figure out what their full story entails. The rest of their family—the Kings of the past if you will—serve as examples for completed lives for better and worse. All Matt wants to do is to try and make a worthy one.
The film only takes place within about a week. The screenplay avoids any of the standard epiphanies commonly seen in these sorts of emotional journeys. Its realizations are small and often unnoticed by the characters. It’s not sure what will happen tomorrow but hopefully they can come to realize what they want the most.
The Descendants will be the Oscar-y movie that everyone will like. There isn’t a bad scene or a missed character. The cast is excellent especially Clooney and Judy Greer. The screenplay by Payne, Nat Faxon and Community’s Jim Rash is one of the strongest this year (even with voice over that only appears in the first 20 minutes). I’m now curious about what will be the next story Payne will lock in on; hopefully it won’t take another seven years.