Monday, April 23, 2012

The Descendants. A

Remember that movie Grace is Gone with John Cusack? It was a movie that had a fair bit in common with the far superior The Descendants. Grace is Gone was a deeply earnest drama about a father who is suddenly a single parent of his two daughters after his wife dies. Sound familiar? Yet The Descendants is so much better, mainly because it knows how to handle its material. It may not be quite as funny as Sideways simply because the material and the comedy are far more delicate, yet I think it's definitely Payne's best film. It's immensely watchable and almost mystifying in the way it makes some fairly dense material so light and enjoyable without compromising any of its intelligence. The movie carries itself with a certain playful charm, and it can because the wife (in a coma, soon to die) seemed to have led an unscrupulous life before her boating accident. We don't meet her, but one of the main plot threads is that she was cheating on her husband, played of course by George Clooney. Much of the movie concerns Clooney trying to track down the other man. When he eventually does (with help from his oldest daughter), we see him peeking over a bush and watching the man enter his house after a jog. Then his wife and kids come outside, and Clooney's head slowly moves back under the bush, realizing things are going to be more complicated. Set in Hawaii and filled with native music, there's something funny about the whole thing, even though it's all very serious. That's Payne's gift. He takes somber material and doesn't throw in little humorous scenes for comic relief. Instead he makes the movie funny and dramatic almost simultaneously by not taking anything too seriously. A good example is when the cheating man's wife goes to see Clooney's wife in the hospital after learning about the affair. She bursts into a deeply emotional, almost parodic fit. The scene is uncomfortably melodramatic, and Payne knows it. Watch how he has Clooney react, and you'll see how well he understands his material. That certain light, airy quality also has to do with the supporting characters, mainly Clooney's daughters and an easy going friend named Sid. They're all perfect, their presence always welcome. The youngest daughter is ten and has the same age and look as the youngest daughter from Grace is Gone. Yet in that film, the daughter was given too many cute moments. Here, she gets a handful of scenes, yet she's honest, sometimes foul-mouthed, and always likable. Payne gets kids, he gets adults, and he gets the whole mess that life can be and puts a fresh spin on how to perceive it. 

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