George Clooney, Shailene Woodley and Nick Krause in a scene from "The… (Fox Searchlight )
Momentous choices accompanied by a ukulele; life-altering decisions made in a Hawaiian shirt, Bermuda shorts and a day-old beard. Simple, honest, real life, right now. Our humanity beautifully rendered in a world where nothing is black and white.
That is "The Descendants," the latest and best entry in filmmaker Alexander Payne's remarkable oeuvre. It has the edgy insight, tangy humor and compassionate eye that have come to characterize his films, "Sideways," "About Schmidt" and "Election" among them. It comes with its emotions raw, exposed, his most vulnerable film yet.
If you trust Vegas oddsmakers, and who doesn't, the best picture Oscar race is down to it and "The Artist," with "The Artist" expected to walk away with the win.
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Should that be the outcome, it will be a shame. Not because I'm not a fan of "The Artist"; no one has done nostalgia better in a long time than writer-director Michel Hazanavicius has in conjuring up the final days of silent films with irresistible buoyancy. But my heart belongs to "The Descendants," as refreshing and loving a look at the dark complexities and comic ironies of contemporary life as "The Artist's" rose-colored retrospective (the glasses, not the tint) of an idolized past.
Some would argue that "The Descendants" is too intimate, without the sweep that a best picture should have — of say a "Lord of the Rings"" or "Titanic."
But it's certainly not unheard of for movies that tap the cultural zeitgeist in deeply personal ways to still be judged the best. At the 1978 Oscars, there was "Annie Hall," with Woody Allen and Diane Keaton rewriting the rules of romantic engagement; "Kramer vs. Kramer" in 1980 won with divorce and custody battled from a father's point of view; a teen's death devastating a family in 1981's winner, "Ordinary People"; repression and sexuality undoing another in "American Beauty" in 2000. Each pulsed with shifting attitudes and arguments about how life would be lived going forward.
But it's been far too long since we've celebrated exactly what director Alexander Payne has given us. For "The Descendants" is a minimalist, masterful portrait of our times, a simple story of a family battered and bruised yet surviving in ways that are deeply affecting for their very ordinariness. It is a cautionary tale of a culture that has become more casual, more open and more confused, less certain of the "right" choice at any given moment.
It is the kind of contemporary adult drama that Hollywood has basically walked away from. Whether it's fear that it won't pay off at the box office or the fascination with bigger, brassier fare, preferably with a 3-D option, these sorts of films have been largely left to the independent spirits, of which Payne is certainly one.
Consider the subjects that "The Descendants" takes on in a modern-day Hawaii that is at its most elemental no more paradise than a Poughkeepsie with palm trees: Life, the right to die, marriage, in-laws, infidelity, inheritance, loss, parenting, adolescence, Alzheimer's, cousins, commitments, lovers and other strangers, divorce, death and above all the notion of legacy — what is given to us and what we leave behind. In doing so, and in doing it with an elegant empathy, it is a film that defines and illuminates our world. Today.
Consider too its core cast of characters, types yet never stereotypes. George Clooney's Matt King as workaholic father-husband, flawed and frayed, is the anchor. Shailene Woodley's Alexandra is that maddeningly unpredictable 17-year-old brew of rebellion and reason. Amara Miller's Scottie steps in as the precocious 10-year-old, acting out with a vocabulary that outstrips her understanding and belies her innocence. Nick Krause's Sid, the easygoing latchkey man-child who holds onto whatever family will have him. We've seen every one of them somewhere in our neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, churches.
Plot-wise, a boating accident that leaves wife and mother Elizabeth in a coma is what sets things in motion. She is in a persistent vegetative state — not unlike the one her family was in long before tragedy struck in terribly unambiguous terms. Discontent and disillusionment — with one another, with themselves, with what life handed them — had left them adrift and increasingly apart. It is a common, the common, malady of our times.
The script, written by Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, is faithful to the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. The film picks up its breezy tone with Matt's voice-over musing about the matters at hand as it moves between Elizabeth's hospital bedside and the other issues he is facing, chief among them how to tell his children their mother is dying, whether to confront her lover and if he should sell the prime piece of Kauai beachfront that has been in his family for generations.
"The Descendants" ends as it should, some things settled, others not, lives in transition. It's modern reality at its most basic, yet something to be savored, like the final scene — day's end, the three remaining Kings curled up in front of the TV, sharing the couch, a blanket and a bowl of ice cream.
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