Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"The Descendants"

The Descendants - Directed by Alexander Payne, written by Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, and Robert Forster - Rated R

An excellent drama that doesn't try to force tears from you.  And it has Clooney at his best.

The Descendants has all of the elements to potentially be one of those miserable tear-jerking dramas begging for an Oscar: a dysfunctional family, a cuckolded husband, a wife in a coma, etc. But the film rises above mere Oscar bait because it paints a realistic portrait of a troubled family. Sure, there are plenty of scenes in which characters sob, but the majority of the film is about how a family, the father in particular, deals with tragedy and, thankfully, they don’t deal with it through quiet desperation.

Writer-director Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt) is no stranger to films about main characters in miserable situations. He is also no stranger to making those films surprisingly watchable and even funny at times. Payne continues to impress with The Descendants and, as with previous films, strong performances elevate the already great material.

George Clooney stars as Matt King, a Hawaiian lawyer/land baron whose wife has recently fallen into a coma after a boating accident. Matt has plenty to deal with. On top of his wife being in a coma, he is in the middle of completing a deal to sell his family’s land holdings (which date back to the mid 1800s), he has no idea how to deal with his two daughters, and it turns out his wife had been cheating on him in a marriage that was running on fumes. That would normally be the set up for a quiet, depressing film. Perhaps it’s the tropical setting, Clooney’s performance, or simply the writing (or all of these things, of course), but The Descendants is a surprisingly light-hearted film. Sure, there are bouts of sobbing as expected but this is not a movie in which everyone sobs hysterically. Nothing against tearjerkers, but a film is much more interesting (and entertaining) if grief is only a small portion of the plot.

The Descendants has enough subplots going on that the wife in a coma doesn’t take center stage. Instead, the film is part comedic detective story as Matt searches the islands for his wife’s lover. A portion of the film is about fatherhood as Matt tries to deal with daughters Scottie (foul mouthed and acting out) and Alex (rebellious with a partying streak). There’s the part about the land of Hawaii, as well, which adds a much different element to a typical drama.

The plot is interesting and varied enough to keep things moving at a fine pace, but the acting makes this film memorable. Clooney is in absolute top form and at this point (after great turns in The American, Michael Clayton, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Up in the Air) is easily one of the best actors working today. This role could easily have been one of those “staring” roles that Clooney has perfected in films like Solaris and Michael Clayton, in which he conveys a multitude of emotions in a glance or eye twitch. That element is there, but this is a role that requires Clooney to be open about his feelings. He shows true range in The Descendants as he deals with his daughters very frankly. It is very refreshing to see a troubled Clooney actually tell someone he is troubled. More importantly, though, you believe him.

Clooney’s performance has a bit of help. Shailene Woodley is the standout as older daughter Alex. She has to share the most scenes with Clooney and she handles herself quite well. Amara Miller is convincing as Scottie in a role that could’ve easily become annoying and/or cutesy. Instead, it’s realistic and touching. Nick Krause gets to provide most of the comedic relief as Alex’s stoner boyfriend Sid, but he also gets to share some important scenes with Clooney and their unlikely pairing provides some of the film’s best moments. And Robert Forster provides some surprisingly emotional scenes as Clooney’s father-in-law.

The Descendants isn’t Oscar bait, but that doesn’t mean you won’t hear about this film in the next few months as awards season kicks in. It is a great film and if you get the chance, you should definitely check it out. The Descendants is a complex film in that it is a complete portrait of a man and his family rather than a singly focused snapshot. Put the story in the interesting setting of Hawaii (shown in a realistic rather than fantastical light) with some great performances and you have a film that is worthy of being mentioned come Oscar time, even if it isn’t demanding it.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)
How great was it when Robert Forster punched Sid?  Oddly enough, my only complaint was that this film needed a few more punches.  It would have been great to see Clooney punch Sid once or twice and Matthew Lilliard has a face ripe for punching.
Speaking of Lilliard, not sure if it was his acting or just his character but I detested that character much more than I sympathized with him.  Judy Greer was great in her one emotional scene as his wife, though. 
Beau Bridges definitely looks and acts like a dude who grew up in Hawaii.  (This coming from an expert on Hawaiian culture as I type this in southern Indiana.)
I thought Alex's underwater crying scene was the most emotional part of the film (with Forster's goodbye to his daughter a close second).  Those scenes also show what is great about this movie since subtle comedy surrounds both.  With Alex, her question about why Clooney felt the need to tell her about her mom while she was in the pool added a bit of humor as it showed just how clueless Clooney was when it comes to dealing with stuff like this.  As for the Forster scene, we see this as Clooney, Alex, and Sid peek through the hospital door like children.  A couple of fine examples of how you can be dramatic but a bit on the light side as well.

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