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Movie Review: The Descendants

November 23, 2011


The Descendants, directed by Alexander Payne, is equal parts touching, thoughtful and honest. It contains as many moments of subtle truthfulness as high drama and never goes too long without a genuinely funny moment. All of this could as equally be said for George Clooney and his career. The pairing, in fact, of Payne and Clooney feels as natural as wine and cheese. If you like wine or cheese even a quarter as much as I do, you’ll realize how great of a compliment that truly is.

The story is anything but simple. Matt King (Clooney) is the head trustee of a huge amount of land in Hawaii. He is nearing the date where he must decide whether to sell for a large sum of money which will take the cultivated land and turn it into just another tourist designation, but will also get his family off of his back. Then, there is his wife who is in a coma due to a near-fatal boating injuring. Her chances of survival are slim and he finds himself in the position of primary caregiver to his two bitter and ill-behaved daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller). This is a role that is new to him, previously always opting to work long hours and instead of pursuing his role as parent. If this wasn’t enough to cope with, he has also just learned of his wife’s infidelities, something that nearly sends him over the edge. The film is possibly about the worst week in one man’s life.

A lesser director would have taken this massive plot and complicated things, filling the time with exposition and confrontations to further heighten the drama. Payne, instead, simplifies this story and uses it solely as a means to develop the characters. The events surrounding this family shed light on who they are, examine how they cope with challenges and show glimmers of how some of them might be beginning to change. All of this is done quietly though.It is not a story the fits neatly into one complete and cohesive chapter, it is merely the conclusion of some stories and the beginning of others. No single life can easily be summed up in 120 minutes of less.

Payne is not the type of director to force feed melodrama by adding a little sugar. Instead, he presents well-written situations that are performed with consistently impressive actors and he allows his audience to pass judgement on “what it all means”. Every character in an lingers in the greyness of existence versus the black and white. While plenty of films do this, The Descendants is the first film in a long time that I can recall dealing with mourning a loved one that may have not been entirely angelic during life. Everyone has imperfections even if all we have left of them is our memories. It is handled with care, but shows elements of the grieving process that rarely get addressed.

The film still easily falls into the class of “dramedy,” but I fear that the film was actually much funnier than I realized on my first viewing. Some of the most hilarious moments in life are rarely that entertaining when first experiencing them. Humor is commonly found with time, after the  pain or embarrassment subsides. It may have been that I was too invested in these characters’ lives to even notice how comedic these situations truly were. Much like life, it was with hindsight that the humor to began to fully emerge.

This is mostly due to there not being a weak performance on the screen and while the cast is sprinkled with performance with greats like Beau Bridges and Robert Forster, the true standouts come from two of the youngest actors in the cast. Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller are so convincing in their roles that I oftentimes found myself following their performances moreso than the powerhouses they were sharing the screen with. I was shocked to learned that Miller’s debut performance was actually in this film. While the attention is likely to fall predominately on Clooney, let’s hope that these two girls are faces we will see again.

The film belongs to Clooney though and there is already plenty of buzz surrounding this film and the upcoming award season. The sauve and handsome movie star, has built a character that is as dopey and awkward as he is intelligent and contemplative. There is nothing artificial about this character; he is complicated and not easily defined. In fact, he builds a character arc that is so understated that some may not even notice how truly great his performance is.

I have been a longstanding fan of Payne’s work and The Descendants prove, yet again that my admiration for him will probably not diminish anytime soon. While his films are consistently as funny as they are poignant, they are somehow still so much more. There is a truthfulness to the characters. While I am nothing like Paul Giamatti’s bitter wine snob in Sideways or coping with the nearing conclusion of my life as is Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt, these characters still resonant with me. Nothing about them feels fake. They are just flawed people in trying times attempting to do the best they can while making a lot of mistakes along the way. In this way, they remind me of every person I know.

Rated 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Directed by Alexander Payne. Written by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer.


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