The Descendants

© 2011 Ray Wong

Movies about death and family can easily sink into the tearjerker territory. Writer-director Alexander Payne, who gave us his Oscar-winning Sideways, manages to tug at our heartstrings while staying just above that line.

Matt King (George Clooney) is an attorney working and living in Hawaii, with a beautiful wife (Patricia Hastie) and two young daughters. Sounds like a perfect life. Except he is a workaholic who has long neglected his wife, who recently had a serious boating accident that put her in a coma. An absentee father, Matt has no idea how to connect with his daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller).

On top of his family crisis, Matt is under pressure by his cousins to sell a large piece of property that could make them all very, very, very rich. Matt is the single surviving trustee and has the sole power to make the decision. It's almost a done deal, except the sale would have changed the face of Hawaii and made a lot of natives angry.

And as if that's not enough to drive Matt insane, he finds out that his wife was cheating on him before the accident, and she was considering a divorce. Stricken with guilt and anger and a sense of impotence, he decides to track down his wife's lover.

George Clooney (The Ides of March) has never been better. He lets down his guard and toss away his suaveness to play a bumbling, befuddled middle-aged man who has lost touch of his own life and family. Clooney's performance is self-effacing, nuanced, and heartfelt. He makes us feel his character's anger and sorrow and everything in between without being melodramatic. In fact, his character's cool exterior can be deceiving. Clooney manages to give Matt King a full internal life despite the fact that he's a distant husband and father.

Shailene Woodley (Moola) gets her big screen break here as Clooney's eldest daughter, a potty-mouthed, rebellious teenager who can't connect with either of his parents. Woodley does a fine job giving the character range (from callousness to deep, conflicting emotions). But the standout is newcomer Amara Miller, who plays Scottie with such innocence and vulnerability that you just want to hug her. She's particularly heartbreaking in a scene where she learns of the truth about her mother. If you don't shed a tear watching her, you have no heart.

The rest of the cast include Nick Krause (ExTerminators) as a surfer who is smarter than he looks. He does a great job. Patricia Hastie (Princess Kailulani) spends most of the film in a bed playing the comatose wife. Beau Bridges (Max Payne) plays it loose as Cousin Hugh. Matthew Lillard (Scooby Doo) is an interesting choice for the lover. And Judy Greer (Love and Other Drugs) is affecting as Lillard's wife.

Written by Alexander Payne (Sideways), Nat Faxon (Adopted) and Jim Rash (Adopted) and based on by Kaui Hart Hemmings's novel, the screenplay is rather barebone. The story unfolds rather quickly with a lot of voice-over. It feels a bit too much exposition, but I suppose it has to be done that way to get the information out without bogging down the plot. Once the plot actually starts, though, it follows a loose structure that weaves various plot threads together. At times it feels rather contrived, with just a tad too many coincidences to suspend our disbelief. The motivations behind the characters' actions are also not always clear or convincing.

The strength of the screenplay is the dialogue. And the strength of the film itself is the performances. And director Payne does a great job letting his actors do their thing. Clooney, in particular, shines as the leading man. Payne explores the grieving process without beating us over the head with grand emotions. Don't get me wrong, the emotions are there and at times they are overwhelming. But Payne doesn't dwell on them, or make a big spectacle out of these emotional scenes. In fact, most of the scenes are understated and achieve certain emotional poignancy that takes a lot of restraint on the director's part.

The Descendants is a flawed little film that explores many big emotions. It's about choices. It's about family. It's about betrayal and agony. It's about forgiveness and unconditional love. There are many big themes. Perhaps that's why it can be so overwhelming for a such a small film.

Stars: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Patricia Hastie, Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer
Director: Alexander Payne
Writer: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash (novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings)
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
MPAA Rating: R for language and sexual references
Running Time: 115 minutes


Script - 7
Performance - 8
Direction - 7
Cinematography - 8
Music/Sound - 8
Editing - 7
Production - 7

Total - 7.5 out of 10.0

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