All together now: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Hollywood has long been warming to Tolstoy’s famous adage and, after a couple of decades of careening around between the burlesque and the tragic, has now come up with pretty much the perfect synthesis – in one film, at least.
The Descendants, directed by Alexander Payne, is set in Hawaii. We expect sun, maybe, and smiles. What we get are lots of clouds and several layers of responsibility hanging over your average-Joe stressed out lawyer Matt King (George Clooney), whose wife lies comatose in the hospital following a water-skiing accident.
He’s the self-confessed back-up parent, called upon out of the blue to hold his family together, deal with the unwelcome discovery of his wife’s infidelity and negotiate a fine line between greed and morality as he and his extended family decide whether or not to sell a large tract of virgin land, inherited generations ago. And so everything is up for grabs.
Payne exploits the situation’s considerable potential for comedy without ever losing sight of the tragedy simmering in the background. The edge is there – things could go either way – but rather than insist on a given reading, Payne provides choices.
We can laugh or shudder when King tells his elder daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), freshly recalled from boarding school, how serious her mother’s condition is while she takes a dip in the pool. We can sympathise with or scorn the ignorance of his wife’s affair, approve or not of the way he handles his younger daughter’s pre-pubescent rebelliousness.
So if Payne has lost a little of the bite evident in Sideways, he’s done so only in the service of a lenient maturity, and frankly, it feels flattering to be included in the processes playing out behind and in front of the camera.
With excellent, nuanced performances throughout, including those from Bridges as the cousin who is only relaxed for as long as the sale of family land promises perpetuation of his lifestyle, and Nick Krause as Alexandra’s unexpectedly wise dude-boyfriend, Payne’s exploration of the ties that bind us to each other, and to our environment, indeed insists upon responsibility – but gently and with affection for inevitable frailties.
The Descendants (Familie und andere Angelegenheiten) | Directed by Alexander Payne (USA 2011) with George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges. Starts January 26