Alexander Payne is truly the master of character development.
It's not even that it's very difficult - other directors try and often succeed in elevating characters on a script into three-dimensional complexities on a screen. But it would appear that this is Payne's most obvious trademark as an auteur.
Recall Election, Sideways and About Schmidt - three films with characters you loved to hate and hated to love. The Descendants is certainly no different: nearly every character in this film, regardless of how they are introduced or how you initially perceive them, will eventually have you reconsider your judgments. That character you want to punch in the face? Give him or her a reel or two to show you why they're acting the way they do. The sterling record of that high school teacher? He just rigged a student election. This is why Payne is so successful as a filmmaker: his stories are layered and complex, with engaging plot elements that are never as one-dimensional as their first impression. To be sure, more movies should engage the many aspects of a person's character as honestly as Payne does. They feel more real that way.
In The Descendants, George Clooney plays Matt King, a frugal Hawaiian native and father of a semi-dysfunctional family. "Paradise" is not as perfect as it may appear, he narrates, as things go horribly wrong for King's wife during a boating accident in the opening scene, where she left in a vegetative coma. When King learns she has no chance of survival, he corrals his two daughters Alexandra, 17 (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie, 10 (Amara Miller) to tell them the news. Unfortunately for King, Alexandra has shocking news of her own.
I say "corral" because Alexandra is living on a different island than her father is, attending a correctional school for loose cannon teenagers. (Alexandra's problem is substance abuse.) Scottie isn't doing much better: at only ten years old, she's a bit of a bully at school.
As a family unit, they struggle to find a balance. It's clear King hasn't been the best father - not a bad one by any means, but maybe not as around as he should have been. His two daughters are whirlwinds that only seem to be stopped by the seemingly Cromagnon-stupid Sid, Alexandra's best friend and possibly love interest. Audience members will want to smack him, and at least one character in the film does. But give him time and watch him mature into a panacea of big brotherhood, silly humour, and comfort where the disaster-stricken family needs it most.
|Matt, Alexandra, and Scottie King.|
The Descendants plays like a collection of stories wrapped in an elegant lei of flowers, and the film's title refers to a major plot element that serves as the string. Matt King and his extended family are distant descendants of King Kamehameha - meaning somehow, they've essentially been entrusted with a virgin slice of Hawaiian land that will fetch their family hundreds of millions of dollars. That is, if they decide to sell it to hotel developers. Do they choose the Hawaiian developers, funneling cash back into the local economy? Or do they take the better deal from Chicago, whose pockets are much deeper? This quandary connects the stories tightly together, and they're all satisfying. You won't leave the theatre feeling cheated or led on. If these arcs seem too "small world" or "coincidence" to be plausible, remember that Hawaii is not a huge place. While some aspects may be exaggerated for comedic effect, this film is ultimately believable.
There are many mini-twists in this film, and you'll be pleased with how a lot of them are resolved. The Descendants is Oscar gold for a reason: it's hilarious and charming, but it's also thoughtful and sad. Oscar loves that stuff, man. The acting is spot on by everyone, but expect Clooney to get a nod for his role. (Also great is Woodley as Alexandra, who should and likely will be getting much exposure soon. Let this, then, be her breakout performance.)
Expect Payne to get a directorship nomination, and also an adapted screenplay nomination. Given that the film will make you want to hop on a plane straight to Hawaii, I can see it getting a cinematography nomination as well, though this sort of recognition is less likely than others.
Finally, expect it to be a top contender for Best Picture, and deservedly so.