Re-view: The Descendants
Alexander Payne’s film is his smoothest blend of humor and pathos.
Our first look “As with everything the writer-director [Alexander Payne] has made in the wake of 1999’s Election, the film defaults to broad comedy any time things promise to get too heavy or real.”
Another view After widespread critical acclaim and an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, The Descendants probably doesn’t need a defense at this late date. Even so, detractors (and not just in our magazine) have taken issue with the film’s unusual blend of yuks and tears. They say the broad humor—Robert Forster’s father-in-law punches Clooney’s daughter’s doofus boyfriend, for example—trivializes the serious story, in which Hawaiian lawyer Matt (George Clooney) helps his family through his wife’s final days. She lies comatose and fatally injured after a water-skiing accident; she also happens to have been philandering.
It’s true that tone problems have marred Payne’s past work, beginning with his debut, Citizen Ruth, an abortion-debate satire whose attitude was so above-it-all that a late attempt at pathos felt unearned. About Schmidt gets my vote for Payne’s low-water mark, cracking jokes at Jack Nicholson’s character’s expense and then selling him as an object of pity at the close. But The Descendants is an altogether smoother mix. While the movie finds room for truly serious scenes (the doctor telling Matt his wife won’t make it), the characters’ unpredictable blend of anger and gallows humor seems appropriate for such a fraught situation. Movies rarely acknowledge that people don’t always act rationally in tragic circumstances; families going through major life changes deal with a range of emotions. The Descendants is still a slightly overrated movie, but its scene-for-scene complexity deserves accolades. (Available on VOD, DVD and Blu-ray Tue 13.)