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November 22, 2011

A family portrait painted black

[img id="90370" align="left"/] It’s been seven long years since Alexander Payne has made a movie, and his dark humor has been sorely missed. Payne’s last film was the Oscar-nominated Sideways (2004), a sardonic tale of two best friends who go on a tour of California’s wine country. Payne continues to find humor in depressing situations with his new film The Descendants.

The Descendants follows Hawaiian realtor Matt King (George Clooney) as he tries to simultaneously broker his family’s 25,000-acre land and deal with his unfaithful wife. The ironic twist (one few directors today can pull off) is that Matt’s wife has recently suffered severe head trauma in a boating accident and now Matt, the substitute father, must raise his two daughters, an energetic tween and an angsty teenager. Did I mention his wife is going to die? It’s this frankness in what seems like a grim scenario that makes Payne the director he is. His characters never cater to stereotypes and often surprise viewers with the most colorful of lines. Payne replaces a typical weeping hospital scene with one that involves nearly an entire family yelling at a woman in a coma. But what seems cruel strikes the audience as candid above all else. What husband wouldn’t yell at his wife after finding out she cheated on him, even if she were in a coma?

Payne approaches The Descendants with the same serendipity one finds in everyday life, and Payne’s characters exhibit idiosyncrasies that, ironically, seem universal to all. Buoyed by performances from Secret Life of the American Teenager star Shailene Woodley, who plays Matt’s daughter, and her sidekick Amara Miller (Matt’s other daughter), Matt King must expertly navigate the tricky and often arbitrary nature of family life. Through the hunt for his wife’s lover (a delightful Matthew Lillard) Matt grows closer to his daughters and eventually come to terms with the state of his life. The Descendants finds salvation in humor and isn’t weighed down by its dialogue or stunted by its character development. Matt and his daughters bond in the midst of a morose situation, using their wit and gumption, a lesson that we should perhaps incorporate into our own lives.

However, the movie is called The Descendants for a reason. While Matt and his family are tracking down his wife’s seducer, he must also broker the sale of his family’s 25,000-acre land in Kauai. He is the sole trustee, and therefore must make the final call on whether or not the sale will be made and to whom.

As the movie progresses we see Payne tackle the capricious nature of life. Matt and his cousins are descendants not by virtue of talent or intelligence, but by sheer good fortune. In life, though, we must play the cards we are dealt regardless of what we think is fair. It is in this vein that Matt ends up making his final decision regarding the land.

But regardless of how much dark humor you can inject into a tragedy, the story is still tragic, and at points it seems like Payne has forgotten that. Matt does not cry when faced with the news that his wife is dying, and there is no sense of melancholy when the Kings are scattering their mother’s ashes. The viewer never actually gets to meet Mrs. King, but often sees her decrepit body lying in the hospital. In the end we sympathize with her and wonder why her family isn’t doing the same.

However, Payne is a conscious filmmaker, one of the few left in Hollywood, and it is his direction and writing that lift the movie to a higher stratosphere of cinema. Too often we see movies sacrifice entertainment for art, but fortunately for us, Payne knows that the best movies are indicative of life itself and therefore must have a stroke of comic paint, even if that paint is black.

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