There’s not a whole lot that makes director Alexander Payne’s The Descendants worthy of acclaim. The story has potential, but comes up short of greatness. The actors, though all talented in their own right – including George Clooney, Robert Forster, and Judy Greer – don’t come to the plate with their best performances. There’s a lot of gorgeous imagery, but that’s largely thanks to the fact that the movie takes place in Hawaii, known coloquially as – ahem – paradise. Off-setting that, however, is a grating string-plucked score that seems to repeat its somber notes throughout the entirety of the film. In short, what I’m saying is that Payne’s film is not the best it could be. But what makes it work, in spite of all of these frustrations, is in the way its characters behave. They behave like real people.
The plot, overall, concerns a lawyer named Matt King (Clooney), who is being forced by law to sell a large chunk of property that his family has owned for generations. While these negotiations are going through, his wife gets into a boating accident and ends up in a coma with little hope of recovery. Shortly after finding out that there is nothing left for the doctors to do, King also learns that his wife has been having an affair. That all sounds pretty dark, I know, but the bulk of the film is rather bright and cheerful. Perhaps “cheerful” is the wrong word, but Matt only lets his emotions surrounding these events show in brief jolts, keeping the bulk of the film as a breezy comedy about bonding with his daughters. When he learns the identity of his wife’s lover, Matt follows him in a humorous manner – peeking over the hedges at the man, for instance, or calling his office and giving a false name. The sunny scenery also helps leaven the mood; though I understand that it’s meant as an ironic juxtaposition with the dour events surrounding the protagonist, the darker aspects of the story do not frequently make headway.
Which is not to say that they’re totally absent, of course. There are some gripping moments where the characters address the depth of their sadness head-on. When Matt first tells his daughter Alexandra that her mother is dying, she dives underwater in their home swimming pool, convulsing in sobs; it’s a sincere and beautiful vision of emotional release. After family and friends gather to be informed of his wife’s impending demise, Matt falls on the ground in despair. Before allowing his daughters to see their mother in the hospital, Matt lashes out verbally at the comatose woman for her indiscretions, wiping away tears. And as soon as he learns of his wife’s extramarital excursions, Matt runs to the best friends of he and his wife to demand that they tell him the name of her lover. In his rage, he attempts to cut them deeply by dropping the news of his wife’s dying with a sneer.
It’s this last, in particular, that strikes me as a wonderful picture of real human behavior. Actually, in discussions about the film with friends I’ve been prone to point to Robert Forster (Dragon Wars, Jackie Brown), who plays Matt’s father-in-law. When told that his daughter is dying, he insults her husband for focusing his life on business and not buying better boating equipment to prevent the accident. He even disparages his granddaughter, telling her that she is ungrateful and should attempt to be more like her mother. Matt and Alexandra do not react; although there may be some element of honest distaste in his accusations, the primary cause for this outburst is his intense sadness at the news of his daughter’s fate. It’s not a particularly nuanced performance from Forster, but the character is so well-constructed, the emotions so raw, that it makes an indelible impression. Take also the man with whom Matt’s wife has been having an affair: though there are certainly reasons why Matt should loathe him, the movie is careful not to paint him as a villain. His decisions were impulsive, not malicious. Matt wants to know how the relationship began, arguing, “Nothing happens by accident.”
“Everything happens by accident,” the man replies, with unwitting poignancy.
Then there is the case of Alexandra’s “friend” Sid, a character who wears on the nerves by being utterly outlandish. He acts like a cliche come to life – a stoned surfer with no regard for the feelings of others, so insensitive that he will laugh at a woman suffering from dementia and crack jokes about a woman dying in the hospital. He seems an outlier from the rest, acting in an extreme manner so that I found myself wondering why he was even included in the film. Ah, but he and Matt share a personal moment later at night which reveals the deeper layers of the character – they don’t excuse him, mind you, just as understanding the humanity of “the other man” doesn’t excuse him his deeds. But they make the character far more rounded than he would be otherwise, make him less a stereotype or a setpiece and into more of a human being.
Those are the moments that are most vibrant for me, ones where the persons on screen become more than characters or actors; where they become people. Matt is an interesting character; he has a well-developed backstory that he describes in voice-over, from his theories on child-rearing to his family history. That makes him compelling, but compiling characteristics is a simple enough exercise for even a novice scriptwriter to tackle. We might call this an Ontological Character: if he can be conceived, he will be. But deeper truths are plumbed with Matt because he sometimes reacts in a startlingly honest manner. Many of the characters in the film do. The broad plot that they find themselves in may not be ultimately satisfying, perhaps a bit too precious, but the value-neutral handling of their reactions to those situations make for something remarkable.
The Descendants ambles along in places where I would have liked to have seen it stride with confidence, yes, and turns to broad comedy too frequently for my taste. But its understanding of the personalities of its players is electrifying. I’d love to see more films with such a grasp on who their characters are.