Adam Hollingworth casts a satirical eye over Alexander Payne's The Descendants...
The very start of Alexander Payne’s latest The Descendants features an unashamedly (and curiously lengthy) voiceover from George Clooney’s character Matt King outlining his many family problems and asserting the fact that just because he’s successful and lives in Hawaii he doesn’t live in paradise.
That’s funny… my very definition of paradise would have to be being on a tropical, beautiful island of blue skies and golden beaches with a stupidly attractive human being. What is George Clooney on Hawaii if not that? Trust a complete acerbic, sardonic male menopausal misery guts like Alexander Payne to be the one to squash that particular dream. It’s not even his first offence either: in About Schmidt he made the idea Jack Nicholson being single and free from work obligations look like a nightmare, instead of the very definition of “liberty.” In Sideways, a picturesque and picaresque golf/wine/women stag holiday becomes an interminable arena of introspection and failure. Good films both, but they don’t half sour precepts that on paper sound pretty damn idyllic.
Of course, The Descendants is much softer and much less savage in its deconstruction of the middle-aged male, and this is because there’s only so much you can do in this vein with the raw material that is George Clooney. Jack Nicholson is the King of Cool, with a smile that can be seen from space and a list of conquests stretching much further than that, but take his sunglasses off and what you’re left with is an unavoidably grizzled, rotund old dog, and Paul Giamatti is….Paul Giamatti. But George Clooney is neither of these things, and never will be. In Syriana he grew a dirty Santa Beard and consumed what looked like a Santa-worthy amount of mince pies for the role, but he still won numerous sexiest man of the year awards. Clooney is a very good actor but fundamentally a movie star, and his skill comes from the way he employs his star in his choice of projects, something he shares with the great Old Hollywood actors he is so often likened to. You can have the basic Clooney (Ocean’s Eleven), the satire that undermines the basic Clooney (Up in the Air), the stupid Clooney (Burn After Reading), the sharp but serious Clooney (Michael Clayton), or my personal favourite Moody Clooney (The American). This latest film isn’t any of the above, but nor is it particularly close to a Payne archetype either.
It is very easy to poke fun at George Clooney’s lady-killer reputation, so let’s do that for a bit. My personal favourite has to be the Jon Stewart Oscar barb that Good Night, and Good Luck is not only the title of Clooney’s best directorial effort to date, but also his sign-off after a night of passion. Clooney is so smooth he makes silk blush. Clooney is so dashing he makes Usain Bolt want to have a lie down. The reason Clooney advertises coffee is because they’re the first and second best ways to keep yourself wired into the early hours of the morning. You don’t kick George Clooney out of bed… he makes you feel like he’s kicking the bed out from you under you and you’re floating in eternal space. Did you ever realise that the first four letters of Clooney rearranged spells 'cool'?
The thing is, though, none of these things are true of Clooney as he plays Matt King in The Descendants. He’s got the silver mane of grey hair, yes, and the Hawaiian shirt that says “take me to the beach and I might take it off.” But he isn’t charming, or warm, or fuzzy: he’s decidedly ordinary. He’s ordinary to the point of being boring, and yet the very naturalness of him, the sense of this man actually existing and experiencing these things, is what makes the character so endearing. It has nothing to do with Clooney’s natural charm, which is being suppressed beneath a subtly layered piece of characterisation. It’s not Clooney acting normally: it’s Clooney making you forget that he’s Clooney. As evidenced by the ribbing above, this is an extraordinarily difficult thing for a movie star to do, and the quality of the performance derives from this.
Payne’s film has been met with criticism and disappointment from some quarters on the grounds of this very ordinariness, yet this is the very thing that makes the film such a textured and accomplished piece of work. Describe the plot to yourself boiled down to its very basic form: a father who’s been largely absent from his children’s lives, more interested in his work and his land inheritance, must hold his family together when his wife falls into a terminal coma, all in face of a revelation that his wife was having an affair with another man. So far so TV Movie of the Week (with a smidgeon of Mary Poppins) yet the film is fresh, funny and very moving. Everything in this story lends itself to the strong danger of cliché, yet Payne’s film never feels in any way clichéd or stereotypical. King has to break the news of their mother’s death in a completely tactless way to the older daughter so he can learn to do it properly with the younger child. A gormless teenager is on hand to laugh at a painfully earnest scene of senile dementia, and to generally undermine the seriousness of what’s going on. The youngest daughter, bored by the tedium of waiting in a hospital, brings back a decidedly nutty friend also confined to the hospital. There’s no grand emotional catharsis, no slapstick and no saccharine earnestness: the film instead plays out this story as it would actually happen, not as a conventional cinematic narrative would present it. The final tableau, with the father and both daughters comfortably nestled on a sofa eating ice cream and watching television, is poignant in its very simplicity. None of them look at each other, yet the sense of their love and togetherness could not be stronger.
The Descendants is a gentler, simpler piece than we are used to seeing from Alexander Payne, yet its simplicity is its beauty. A subtle piece with great depth and heart, this is screen drama at its very best. I still don’t quite buy the whole idea that anyone married to George Clooney would cheat on him, though. The only way you’d cheat on George Clooney is to beat him in a game of Scrabble.