December 23, 2011
D: Alexander Payne. DP: Phedon Papamichael. W: Payne/Nat Faxon/Jim Rash (based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings). Starring: George Clooney/Shailene Woodley/Amara Miller/Nick Krause/Beau Bridges/Matthew Lillard/Judy Greer/Mary Birdsong/Rob Huebel/Robert Forster.
Hot from the festival circuit, Alexander Payne’s new film, The Descendants, has found nice footing at movie theaters across the country. The only true test will be how it fairs through award season.
Since 2004’s Sideways, this is the first project that Payne has both written and directed and he does the story credit here. The Descendants is a multi-layered story that thankfully doesn’t try to be too complex in its delivery. Following George Clooney’s Matt King as he grapples with the pending decision of whether or not to sell his family’s virgin Hawaiian land, the story also finds Clooney’s character dealing with his wife’s accident that leaves her in a serious coma. Top it all off Clooney finds out said wife has been cheating on him and decides to bring home his teenage daughter to be with him, help him, and be at her mother’s bedside.
Clooney does well here, not only is the actor aging gracefully, but his lovable, yet defunct dad role offers Clooney some moments of tenderness and quiet restraint audiences haven’t seen in awhile. However, no one has to do too much. Payne uses the Hawaiian locations well, doesn’t over indulge in his use of voice-over, and thankfully allows both of Clooney’s daughters in the film to be fully realized characters rather than shallow archetypes. Specifically, Shailene Woodley as Clooney’s teenage daughter Alexandra shines. She feels fresh, with just enough rebellion in her. Woodley, although statuesque and gorgeous by any comparison, is not dolled up or overdone, giving her character a realistic feel matched by her younger sister Scottie (Amara Miller).
The betrayal aspect of the plot is handled with the right amount of anger, fear, and curiosity that makes the film engaging and heart wrenching at the same time. One of my few complaints is at times the pace really slows down and the whole film could have been a bit tighter. Also, the other couple met in act three feels a bit archetypal next to such a well rounded family (and friend in Nick Krause’s Sid). Regardless though, The Descendants ends up feeling cathartic in a way. A lot of pain and decisions rest on one man who is quickly learning how fast one’s life can be re-focused and the repercussions those decisions have in and outside of his life. Hopefully, we all figure this out before its too late.