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The Unbearable Lightness of The Descendants: an honest look at normal family dysfunction.

April 10, 2012

I admit a prejudicial liking for all of the Alexander Payne movies Ive seen before – Election, Sideways, About Schmidt. I use the word ‘liking’ deliberately here because all of these films have this tendency to appear overrated at first viewing because they are so slight, so delicately observed, so damn comically, astoundingly real and true (Sideways was particularly guilty of this).

Upon first viewing, one (and by this I mean Me) watches and appreciates a Payne movie for its light touch, its cunning investigation of the banal and the self-important, its brutal portrayal of the middle-aged man and even the selfish hideousness of the teenager; its lyrical depiction of the American contemporary landscape. Payne’s movies are basically affluent (in the case of The Descendants, also good-looking) middle-class America, personified. And they are funny too, in a weird, unfunny way. The kind of funny where you want to slap the characters because they are difficult to like.

So initially one watches, and comes away feeling – ‘so what’? I certainly had that ‘what’s all the fuss about?’ feeling when watching The Descendants. I’m also always a bit prejudiced against award season favourites and despite liking George Clooney in most things (especially Men Who Stare at Goats for some reason), I expect films he is in to be smug and too clever by half. Which they often are. But then, I remember how much About Schmidt affected me and how much I pitied Matthew Broderick’s character in Election and I like Payne’s films even more.

This was the case with The Descendants. I watched it, I appreciated its supurbly deft touch with human behaviour, its comic pathos, its jaunty music and its lush landscapes. And I wanted More. I, misguidedly, wanted an easy resolution, perhaps less ‘comedy’ or fewer images of beauty (its hard to appreciate drama in Hawaii, and Payne, cunningly, plays with this) or the pathos and warmth of family. I wanted a passive, slightly crumpled and outstanding George Clooney to smack his father-in-law (even though, of course, the old man was grieving) and tell his daughter what for. I wanted him to confront his wife’s lover, perhaps violently. But instead of the usual resolutions, the predictable high drama, I got gentle acceptance and perhaps a very decent and honest portrait of what marriage often is after many years: companionship, understanding and friendship. Even if, at times, Payne’s view was a little too subtle to really appreciate.

So while initially I was ‘so?’, after the credits rolled I came away with a lingering and even disturbing sense of middle age and death and how it affects a family. But Payne does not pretend to offer, or know, all things. He shines a light on a small segment of ordinary family dysfunction and all we are certain of, at the end of the film, is that life kinda just goes on, and returns to normal. That our individual sufferings, while important to us, are ultimately very ordinary and small. To show this, to disturb and amuse and reflect so skillfully, and so sneakily: well, there’s a kind of genius right there.

  1. pallasathena1 permalink

    Looks like I’ll be giving this one a miss. Got enough family dysfunction of my own.

  2. Konrad Scheffler permalink

    Great review!

  3. I think they did a great job of making Clooney’s character imperfect without being awful. Did a review of this film on my blog and would love your take!

    • Sure thing!

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