Way back in 2004, I attended a London Q&A with little-known director Alexander Payne, following a screening of his forthcoming film, Sideways. I loved his previous film, About Schmidt, but found Sideways little more than okay. It was rather self-important and tedious, and I then felt a little embarrassed for the number of people telling him during the Q&A how “amazing” his film was. Little did I know the critics would agree with them, and the film went on to be nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, and winning for his screenplay. I still don’t get it.
Forward to 2011. Payne’s long-awaited follow-up, The Descendants, arrives in US cinemas. Again, the critics are impressed, and in 2012 it also receives five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. George Clooney has always come across as a decent guy, but he has a habit of picking the kinds of films I can’t stand. Let’s say my hopes weren’t high, but I had an open mind. Some might say it was due to my lowered expectations, but I thought The Descendants was superb.
Taking a story about the unravelling of a man’s life, casting George Clooney, and setting it in the paradise of Hawai’i were all inspired decisions. Payne does a convincing job of making not only the Aloha State’s islands look as mundane as they are beautiful, but “gorgeous” George too. I never found myself questioning that one of Hollywood’s premier heart-throbs was anything other than a scruffy cuckold. Everything about his performance sells the character, from the temper simmering behind his eyes, to the gait of his run. You never question his desire to do the right thing, and yet event after event seems to be pushing him further and further to blow his top. His ability to remain calm and focused is never overly-saintly, all the while maintaining the audience’s sympathy. This is no meant feat, believe me.
The supporting cast is worthy of a mention, too, as his two young daughters each give the perfect balance of maturity and immaturity, each having their own opportunity to tug at your tear glands. The extended family of cousins, parents, friends and rivals are nicely drawn, so nobody feels like a one-dimensional plot device, but all are characters in their own right.
It won’t be to everybody’s tastes, as ultimately nothing really happens. But I found it a hugely pleasant way to pass two hours, and would happily do so again.