Monday, November 21, 2011

Movie Review: The Descendants

The Descendants ****
Directed by: Alexander Payne.
Written by: Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings.
Starring: George Clooney (Matt King), Shailene Woodley (Alexandra), Judy Greer (Julie), Matthew Lillard (Brian), Beau Bridges (Cousin Hugh), Robert Forster (Scott), Rob Huebel (Mark Mitchell), Mary Birdsong (Kai), Amara Miller (Scottie), Nick Krause (Sid).

Alexander Payne is one the best filmmakers in America right now. After churning out his abortion comedy debut Citizen Ruth, his high school masterpiece Election, his old age comedy About Schmidt and the simple perfection that was his wine country comedy Sideways all in an eight year span, it has taken him seven long years to follow it up with his latest film, The Descendants. I can think of no higher praise than to say that even with the lofty expectations that come when major directors take so much time off, The Descendants does not disappoint. It is every inch an Alexander Payne film.

The film stars George Clooney (who wanted the role that Thomas Haden Church got in Sideways, but Payne said no because he didn’t think anyone would believe the biggest star in the world as an out of work actor) as Matt King, a lawyer in Hawaii, who is struggling with the decisions he has to make. The first involves a huge parcel of land entrusted to him and his family since the 1800s on one of the Hawaii islands. The trust ends in 7 years, and things could get ugly if he and all of his cousins do not sell it by then. But Matt is the lone trustee – so he gets to decide who to sell it to. No matter what offer he picks, everyone will be extremely wealthy because of the deal. The second is even harder. His wife has gotten into a boating accident, and is lying in a coma that doctors say she won’t wake up from. He has to pull the plug. The problem now is that he has to be a full time parent to his troubled teenage daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and his 10 year daughter Scottie (Amara Miller), and he’s always been so busy, he doesn’t really know how to relate to them, or what to do with them. Things get even more complicated when he finds out that his wife was having an affair, and was planning on asking him for a divorce. After telling all of his wife’s friends and family, he takes his daughters (and a stoned surfer named Sid) out to try and track down the other man, to give him a chance to say goodbye as well. His motives aren’t really altruistic – he’s pissed as hell, and wants to see the man his wife was set to leave him for.

What never ceases to amaze me about Payne’s films is how even in the midst of tragedy, how he can mine humor out of the situation. And not easy humor either, but realistic humor that grows out of the characters and the situation that they are in. Here, he is aided in great part by George Clooney, who gives one of his best performances in the film. He is a man who has always lived his life according to his plan. Unlike his cousins, he has not squandered his money, but saved it. He has been frugal – perhaps too frugal – but he believes what he believes and sticks with it. He knows his marriage to his wife wasn’t great, but he didn’t think it was that bad either. He knows he should be doing something more for his daughters, but he doesn’t know how to relate to them. The movie is about how he adapts to the new situation, and grows into the person he needs to be for his family. Clooney exudes charm and humor in the role – he does “movie star” performances as good as anyone, but there’s a deeper level here that gradually comes out. He carries the movie.

The supporting cast is wonderful as well. As someone who has suffered through a few episodes of The Secret Life of the American Teenager, I was amazed by how good Shailene Woodley is in this film, considering how awful I think she is on that show. Here, played a rebellious teenager, with alcohol and drug issues, and an affinity for older men, who is angry at her mother for the affair and the coma, and angry at her father for letting it all happen, she is truly great. Also wonderful is Judy Greer, in a role that comes late in the film, as a woman who is trying to hold onto what she has. And in more purely comic performances, Robert Forrester is great as Clooney’s gruff father in law and Nick Krause is quite good as the seemingly stoned out, shallow surfer dude – who may not be as shallow as he first appears.

The Hawaii backdrop works well for The Descendants. Yes, it is beautiful, but Payne doesn’t dwell on the beauty or the tourist areas. This is a film about people who live in Hawaii – there lives are just as messy as people who live anywhere else, no matter that they do live in a tropical paradise. The cinematography is lush and vibrant, and works well for the movie.

The Descendants is a great movie – witty and funny, but also humane and heartbreaking. This is a crowd pleaser, but on a deeper, more satisfying level than most. It’s one of the year’s best.

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