Article/ The Descendants: Hail the Cuckolded Hero

Sideways director Alexander Payne returns with another smart comedy that harks back to the films of Wilder and Sturges

By Ian Haydn Smith

Billy Wilder once said, “If there’s anything I hate more than not being taken seriously, it’s being taken too seriously”. It is a conundrum that has dogged Alexander Payne’s career, from his debut Citizen Ruth (1996), which threw caution to the wind and entered the abortion debate with satirical aplomb, through to the Oscar-winning Sideways (2004) that saw an audience of millions watch two men cope with the paralysis of middle age. In The Descendants, Payne once again details the failings of adults, employing tragedy as a comic device.

George Clooney plays Matt King, a wealthy Hawaiian lawyer, landowner and real estate developer, whose wife has been seriously injured in a boating accident. Matt’s predicament worsens on discovering that their marriage may not have been the unfettered atoll of bliss he presumed. He decides to track down her lover, taking with him his daughters who have, until now, remained an emotionally and physically distant part of his life.

But why would he want to make this journey? And what is he going to do about the major real estate deal that would see most of his extended family become millionaires, but at the cost of the family’s paradisiacal retreat?

In Election (1999), Payne had Matthew Broderick’s feckless teacher Jim McAllister go to war against Reese Witherspoon’s know-it-all student, only to fail without honours. Like the director’s debut, it was a thinly veiled attack on the malaise at the heart of American politics and the skewed morality of its society. About Schmidt (2002)saw Jack Nicholson’s widower travel across America to give his estranged daughter’s hand away, whilst engaging in a series of heartfelt diatribes about the state of his existence with a six-year-old Tanzanian penpal named Ndugu.

Inter-generational conflict and the road movie are tropes that Payne knows well. What makes The Descendants so impressive is how the filmmaker edges us into bleaker territory without ever losing the ability to amuse – how many comedies open with the central protagonist’s wife falling into a coma?

Payne’s films find humour in the pain or emptiness of his characters’ lives without exploiting them. It is a fine balance, which he has traversed successfully as a writer/director (he has had less success as a pen-for-hire – he wrote, along with Barry Fanaro and regular collaborator Jim Taylor, the misguided Adam Sandler vehicle I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, 2007).

Like Schmidt, Jim or even Miles (Paul Giamatti) in Sideways, Matt King is neither a hero nor a villain. He simply happens to be burdened with a decision he cannot abide (selling the family property to developers) and one he has no choice but to accede to (his wife’s will stipulates that should she end up in a vegetative state, he must take her off life support). But saddled with his daughters, he realises he must take his life, as well as that of his close and distant family, into his own hands.

The emotional course upon which Payne sends his characters is similar to those endured by the protagonists of Preston Sturges’ Christmas in July (1940), Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), a director to whom Payne has been compared. The characters mean well, but their decisions are often made selfishly and without concern for others. And like Sturges’ films, Payne’s tales unfold at ease, the shift between drama and comedy never forced.

Payne’s films are also reminiscent of Wilder’s, particularly the hapless farces starring Jack Lemmon (The Descendants is not so far removed from Wilder’s 1972 comedy Avanti). Both directors revel in pouring acridity into their narratives, which often unsettles. In The Descendants, what happens to Matt contrasts sharply with the surroundings in which the events unfold. But this Hawaiian paradise is not always what it seems. As Matt tells us in his introductory voiceover,  “Paradise can go fuck itself ”. These are strong words from a man used to papering over divisions and ignoring the fissures in his relationships – and not the attitude that Matt’s world expects of this charming man.

With thanks to Curzon Cinemas.

The Descendants screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 27 January