Review: The Descendants (No Spoilers)

Last night I attended Film Independent’s screening of The Descendants in LACMA’s Bing Theater. The film presentation was followed by a Q&A panel hosted by film critic Elvis Mitchell with stars of the film Judy Greer, Shailene Woodley, Nick Krause, Matthew Lillard, Robert Forster, Beau Bridges, George Clooney, and the films writer and director, Alexander Payne. Needless to say, the evening was unforgettable, and the film was astounding.

In his description of the film, Elvis Mitchell wrote,

In her novel, The Descendants, author Kaui Hart Hemmings writes, “The tropics make it difficult to mope,” and in his film adaptation of the book, Alexander Payne examines that phrase from various angles to find all of the deeply emotional comedy that he can – what audiences have come to expect from him. The Descendants, Alexander Payne’s return to feature filmmaking after a seven-year absence, brings the writer-director back to his unique intersection of comedy, drama and familial dysfunction.

The beautifully structured film – which follows Blake Snyder’s fifteen beats to a tee – begins with a heavy dose of voiceover, and while the voiceover is a bit cumbersome, it is beautifully written and reveals immense amounts of information in the most economical method possible. As the need for exposition dies away, so does the voice over, and the audience is allowed to stop observing the characters and start experiencing everything that the characters experience.

Revealing as little as I can about the plot of the film – I’ll let you experience that for yourself – The Descendants is the story of a father trying to cope with his own life, a life he’d lost track of somewhere along the way, after a boating accident leaves his wife in a coma. The father, Matt King (played by Clooney) has to learn how to be the sole parent to his daughters after being “the backup parent” for most of their childhoods; he must make amends with his wife – a situation thoroughly complicated by her comatose state; and amidst these personal crises, he must sell his and his family members’ massive land holdings on Kauai – should the land go to a Hawaiian owner or Chicago developers willing to pay half a billion?

Payne wrote this film with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (better known by many as Dean Pelton on NBC’s Community). The writing team did an exceptional job of finding the heart of the book that they adapted and transforming it into an exceptionally captivating film experience. Every scene is precisely crafted to work on multiple levels – the drama of the tragic events is constantly layered with the comedy inherent in how such things actually play out between imperfect humans. Watching this film certain key scenes had me on the verge of tears and laughs in the same moment. The plethora of emotions evoked on the screen directly resulted from the humanness of the characters (or should I say “people”) that Payne, Faxon, and Rash created.

Robert Forster commented during the panel that he had trouble seeing the comedy on the page when he read the script, because the comedy isn’t in the words themselves but in the characters who say them and the situations they say them in. As Forster put it, “This film rides the hard yellow line between comedy and drama.” Beau Bridges added, “Alexander celebrates the complexity of all of us with his characters.” It’s a feat that few other films are able to rival. Most recently, 50/50 made an attempt and came up a bit short. Successes include Lars and the Real Girl, Regarding Henry, and of course, Payne’s own Sideways. (On a side note, if someone could please teach me to write like this, I would greatly appreciate it.)

Judy Greer commented that everything that the actors needed for these roles was on the page. Their sole task was to play the characters as humanly and authentically as they could. Payne added that with a script like The Descendants, he knew that the comedy was on the page, but the actors shouldn’t. He simply asked them to make the roles as real as they could, and the comedy came out in the reality. Shailene Woodley remarked that with Payne, they weren’t asked to act, just to be human.

If you’re anywhere remotely close to a theater showing The Descendants, go see it. Right now. And if someone has access to the script, please find a way to make it available. This is a film and script that every writer of comedy and drama should study and pray for the ability to imitate.

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