Friday, November 18, 2011


In directing his first film since the Oscar-darling SIDEWAYS, Alexander Payne does something to George Clooney that has never been done in the man’s successful and diverse career; he stuffs Clooney’s character full of emotional trials until it boils out, and the result is a redefining acting performance which is just one small part of a brilliant film.

Matt King (Clooney) is the owner of the last undeveloped land in the Hawaiian Islands which is worth a fortune, and must decide either to sell it or try to keep it while being pressured by his family. A month before the decision, Matt’s wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is involved in an accident which puts her into a coma, where she will remain until Matt decides to honor his wife’s wishes to pull the plug. Matt, who was often an absent parent, must now act as a lone parent to his brat daughters Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alex (Shailene Woodley), with Alex finally telling her father his dying wife’s secrets.

THE DESCENDANTS is Matt’s story as he tries to bring what’s left of his family together. Pain and conflict are the themes throughout the film, and Payne positions them brilliantly like a chess master. In the early goings, the film feels like it would be another run-of-the mill family bonding story, but when Alex lets Matt know about his dying wife’s secrets, things change in a hurry. The daughters who were once Matt’s enemy are suddenly his allies as they charge into Elizabeth’s past; not to confront or cause trouble, but to find closure and try to get to know her better before she passes on. It is a very human story.

Payne does tremendous work in never letting the film become too dark and depressing; the film is very funny, but never gets carried away as it always remembers to bring things back to the dying wife and mom. Filming THE DESCENDANTS in Hawaii was a stroke of genius; it is a beautiful setting for a tragic tale.

Clooney is at his absolute best here, and anyone who thought they had the man completely figured out hasn’t seen anything yet. His character is burdened with emotion for the entire film, and when it finally boils over…whoa daddy. It’s a performance that a lot of people might not be ready for. Equally good is Shailene Woodley, who goes toe-to-toe with Clooney often and never misses a beat. Also surprising is a rare and well executed serious role by Matthew Lillard, and smaller parts by Beau Bridges, Judy Greer and Robert Forester are also directed and acted beautifully.

The finale has a bit of predictable turn, as the often-seen morality tale of what is really important in life is finally revealed. In this setting and with this execution, it really does work. THE DESCENDANTS is packed with real-world tragedy and drama, but never stuck too much in reality that we can’t enjoy it immensely.


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