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The Descendants (2011)

November 19, 2011


written by: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash & Alexander Payne

produced by: Jim Burke, Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor

directed by: Alexander Payne

rating: R (for language, including some sexual references) 

runtime: 115 min.

U.S. release date: November 16, 2011 (limited) & November 18, 2011 (wide)


It’s hard to believe that six years have passed since Alexander Payne’s Oscar-winning film “Sideways”. While the writer and director hasn’t helmed a movie since then, he’s been involved as a co-producer of three films (“The Assassination of Richard Nixon”, “The Savages”, and this year’s “Cedar Rapids”), all of which were well-received. “The Descendants” is Payne’s return to a form as he once again focuses on the turbulent and touching lives of ordinary people, where scenes are played for laughs, but comedy nevertheless comes from particular scenes. It’s a dramatic comedy that shows that Payne hasn’t lost his touch and provides us with one of George Clooney’s finest performances yet.

Honolulu workaholic attorney Matt King (George Clooney) hasn’t been the best husband or father and it’s taken a tragic accident for him to face such truths. His wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is hospitalized after a speedboat accident left her in a coma, which leaves Matt (the self-proclaimed “back-up parent”) in charge of his two daughters, 10 year-old Scottie (a delightful, Amara Miller) and 17 year-old Alexandra (a mature, Shailene Woodley). Considering his absence in their lives, these girls are distant, disrespectful, and stubborn. As a parent, Matt has no clue, since his wife had basically raised their girls on his own. But his situation has forced him to attempt to right his wrongs. If only his wife would wake up, they could talk things out and make their marriage work, but it’s not looking like that will happen.

As if that wasn’t enough for Matt to deal with, Alexandra drops a bomb – mom was cheating on dad. Now Matt not only has to go around and inform his family and friends that his wife isn’t going to wake up, he’s also compelled to find out who this guy is. Did she love him? How long has this been going on? Who else knew? Were they in his bed? Of course, like all the curveballs that life hits us with, Matt is also the trustee of a valuable land inheritance that’s been in his family for many generations, and must make a decision within the next couple of days. His cousins (among them a fun turn by a long-haired Beau Bridges, who plays not-so-easy-going very well) want to give in to a lucrative flip in the next couple of days, but ultimately it’s up to Matt.



So, we have two main intense topics of grief and infidelity, both are unavoidable and must be dealt with, surrounded by a network of family and friends. And just as in real-life, Payne has the characters on-screen deal with them in an openly honest, unintentionally funny, and an unpredictable manner. It’s a story that sounds like it could be filled with tired clichés, populated by typical roles, but in adapting the 2009 novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, Payne along with co-writers, Nat Faxon and Jim Rush,  “The Descendants” offers as much a look at a modern family as “The Kid’s Are All Right” did last year.

Like that film, “The Descendants” has an impressive cast, but here we have an identifiable lead in Clooney, in a performance that is both humorous and heartbreaking. It helps though that such a stellar supporting can help Clooney downplay his star power.  You don’t often see the actor play a character who seeks advice from an affable teen like Sid (a wonderful Nick Krause), Alexandra’s boyfriend, who tags along on their island-hopping hunt for the family’s homewrecker. When we finally do meet Matt’s rival, goofy realtor Brian Speers (yes, that’s Matthew Lillard), the encounter is more complicated than a punch to the face. Brian is also a father of two and is married to Julie (Judy Greer, deftly handling what could’ve been a stereotypical role), a seemingly unassuming supportive wife. All of these actors have comedic beats to play with, but their execution is one that always stays true to the moment and who these people are.

In the hands of another director, “The Descendants” could have been rife with exposition or melodrama. Payne provides the actors here with some rewarding moments that often wind up as raw revelations. Like when Matt’s cantankerous father-in-law (a perfectly cast Robert Forster) visits his unresponsive daughter in the hospital. It’s a scene that is both private and tender, showing a helpless father withholding his own guilt and regret, reaching out with tenderness. Another standout scene is the one where Matt tells his oldest that her mother isn’t going to be waking up. It’s not the wisest choice to tell her while she’s swimming, but it’s typical for a father who hasn’t really thought much through in years. Payne takes the camera underwater as Woodley’s character, overwhelmed with such news, submerges her emotions for no one to see and hear but the audience. Both scenes are examples of Payne inviting viewers to relate to the situations these characters are thrust into.



That’s what stands out the most – the fact that we can all relate to something here. Some of the situations may come across as overt comedy, but there are plenty of moments in our own lives, where if we stepped out and examined what was going on, it would be quite comedic. Another element that makes this a story that can hit home for just anyone is the wide spectrum of ages we see. At first, it seems they could be one-dimensional roles, but we see enough variety in these supporting roles for us to connect to them.

Sometimes it’s hard for people to separate an actor from their own popularity and stardom, or from the roles they are known for. They’re often perceived a specific way, and therefore audiences expect a certain something from that particular actor.  Clooney may be considered one of those guys for some. He’s seen as an Oscar winner, a humanitarian, an outspoken liberal, and a single bachelor, but despite all that, he’s still like many actors in that he’s just looking to get lost in a good role. Matt King is such a role. He’s not a charmer, nor is he fast-talking or slick. He’s a cuckold who wears flip-flops, worn cargo shorts and quirky Hawaiian shirts (not the tourist kind mind you, but still nothing you’d get away with in the States).  Clooney has found a good partner in Payne, a director who knows when to let his actors embody the space he allows them.

Like “Sideways”, there’s a travelogue element to “The Descendants” and rightly so, seeing as how it’s set in the Hawaiian islands. It never feels like Payne is helping out tourism in any way though, as cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (who also lensed Clooney’s “The Ides of March”) focuses on ocean breezes and exotic flowers as much as he does the residential side of the 50th state that we rarely see.

The marketing of the film may try to sell it as looney Clooney, but that’s just to get you in the theater. Once you’re seated, you’ll be treated to a gentle and honest drama that takes its comedy seriously, right down to the great final shot that Payne holds right into the end credits. It’s another moment (of many moments) that is authentic and true.




RATING: ****


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