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The Descendants (A Movie Review)

The Descendants

The Descendants


Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Barbara L. Southern, Rob Huebel, Mary Birdsong, Laird Hamilton, Karen Kuioka Hironaga, Carmen Kaichi, Celia Kenney, Matt Reese, Scott Michael Morgan and Patti Hastie.

Screenplay by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.

Directed by Alexander Payne.

Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.  110 minutes.  Rated R.

George Clooney is such a handsome man and his acting is so naturally low-key and charismatic that sometimes we underestimate how truly skilled an actor he can be.

Clooney is sort of the acting equivalent of the state of Hawaii, the setting for writer/director Alexander Payne’s long-awaited follow-up to Sideways.  On the surface it is beautiful and placid, but when you look deeper you realize there is a lot more going on that you’d originally expect.

In the lead role Clooney does not make a false move, running the gamut from anger to sorrow to apathy to frustration to humor without lots of showy actor’s moves.  Here is a man who is numbed and yet at the same time bereft and yet he is also loving and hopeful.

The same can be said about The Descendants, a wonderfully complex and yet somehow bracingly light look at such serious issues like parenthood, betrayal and mourning.

This story could have easily been horribly melodramatic; instead it is nimble and charming even when the situation can be heartbreaking.  And somehow, by not playing the drama for pathos the film gets a gut-punch power that probably much stronger than it would be if the filmmakers were pulling the normal strings.  There is one section near the end of The Descendants which may be as devastating as anything you have seen in a major Hollywood production all year, but you come out of the film feeling hopeful and upbeat.  That’s one hell of a filmmaking trick.

Clooney plays Matt King, a well-off real estate lawyer in Hawaii who is also in charge of his family’s vast land holdings on the island. Over the years Matt has become somewhat estranged from his wife and kids, but it is more a feeling of disconnect than actual bad feelings. In fact, Matt wants desperately to repair his relationships, he is just not sure how. And he always assumed that he would have time.

As the film starts, Matt’s wife is injured in a speedboat accident, leaving her comatose and near death. Suddenly that time that Matt was depending upon has evaporated. Not to mention he has to now care for his two daughters, who were both troubled in their own ways even before their mother’s injury. Matt had always left the major child-rearing responsibilities to his wife and he suddenly realizes he is not sure how to connect with his own girls.

Those girls are teen Alex (a stunningly good Shailene Woodley), who went off to private school because of a fight with her mother and now is acting out and experimenting with drinking, sex and drugs. The younger daughter is Scottie (Amara Miller), who is getting into trouble for bullying at her school.

As Matt tries to come to terms with his wife’s probable death and help his girls deal with it as well, he finds out the reason his wife and daughter had a falling out was that Alex caught her mother in an affair with a married local real estate agent (Matthew Lillard). Now Matt is obsessed with finding out about this man who was sleeping with his wife.

His problems are not all just personal, though. His family has decided that they should sell off their vast acreage of island property, but as the lawyer in charge, it is Matt’s final call. Therefore, while he must deal with his personal crises, he also has to deal with outside pressure to sell off his ancestor’s birthright – land that he feels should probably be preserved for the people as park land.

The plot is overstuffed with fascinating characters, gorgeous scenery and interesting plot twists. However Payne (with co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash – who is better known as the ambiguously gay dean on the hit sitcom Community) never make a false step, keeping it smart and funny and making the emotional moments work for their payoff.

If The Descendants isn’t the best film of the year, it’s at the very least on the short list.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2012 All rights reserved. Posted: March 13, 2012.

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