Family ties bind in 'The Descendants'
To cast George Clooney, a well-known actor, in a role that is essentially a character study can be high risk. Or high gain. Will the audience spend time watching Clooney as Clooney, whose on-screen presence and charm are considerable, or will he be able to vanish into the role, his portrayal powerful enough to allow his character to fully emerge?
In "The Descendants," Clooney gives an exceptional performance, abandoning his suave, sometimes glib persona, a role honed in the "Ocean's Eleven" franchise and "Up in the Air." He embraces fully the role of Matt King, a descendant of Hawaiian royalty, a wealthy Oahu attorney, detached from his family (he refers to himself as "the understudy parent"), escaping from his wife and two daughters into his work.
What pushes his life off the familiar family rails is a boating accident in which his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), sustains serious head trauma and is now in an irretrievable coma.
Simultaneously, Matt, who, as family trustee for 25 acres of pristine land on Kauai, is negotiating the sale of the property at the urging of his extended family — a gaggle of cousins, who, like Matt, are descendants of Edward King and Hawaiian Princess Kekipi.
And so it becomes clear that "The Descendants," based on the 2007 novel by Kaui Hart Hemming, is an intimate study of a man caught in the strong crosscurrents of powerful emotions and responsibilities, seemingly ill-equipped to handle any of it. He searches for clarity and decisiveness while being battered by family dysfunction, unprepared for events that often leave him speechless. His daughters — 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and 10-year-old Scotty (Amara Miller) — are rebellious (never to the point of caricature), angry with both their mother and their father, while Matt searches for a way to tell them and the extended family that Elizabeth will soon die.
This intersection in Matt's life is harrowing, almost more than he can bear. And director-writer Alexander Payne ("Sideways," "About Schmidt") gets it just right, never allowing the film to slip into melodrama, and always leavening the comedic moments with a dark seriousness given the reality that Matt and the girls are confronted with — the loss of a mother and a wife.
What is so engaging about "The Descendants" is that it is not simply a tour de force by Clooney; rather, the film possesses a remarkable cast, each actor giving and exceptional performance. Robert Foster as Matt's father-in-law and Beau Bridges as one of the cousins are pitch-perfect, as is Woodley in her portrayal of the estranged daughter.
Tolstoy once wrote, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Indeed.
An overwhelmed babysitter piling three kids in the family minivan and heading to New York late at night is a decidedly frayed trope. But with some intelligent comedic writing, well, there just might be remnants of humor found as one misadventure bumps into the next. "The Sitter," however, offers only vacuity and vulgarity.
Director David Gordon Green is not shy about telegraphing what the audience is in for in the opening scene wherein Noah (Jonah Hill), man-child, college dropout, living with his mom, is, well, performing a sexual act on his decidedly self-centered girlfriend, Marisa (Ari Graynor).
Short on cash, he agrees to sit for his mom's friends' kids: Blithe (Landry Bender), Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez) and Slater (Max Records), in the aggregate known as trouble.
While watching TV with the grumpy trio, Noah takes a call from Marisa. She's at a party and desperate for some coke and gives Noah her dealer's location. Noah agrees to pick up the drugs. Meanwhile, absent any other option, he takes the dynamic trio with him to New York. And so the film begins to circle the drain.
Good comedy is hard to write. Perhaps more difficult than good drama. Which is why some screenwriters seek refuge in the crude and salacious — seriously, there's better stuff written on the back of bathroom stall doors in ballparks (crisp, imaginative). The assumption is that if the audience is shocked by the profane, lulled by stereotypes (Noah ends up, briefly, in the hood where caricatured black folks become a white boy's worst nightmare), they will forget they are watching drivel. But maybe not.