The Descendants (2011) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA rated R for language and sexual references
Running time: 115 min.
Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Matthew Lillard, Robert Forster, Judy Greer, Barbara L. Southern, Beau Bridges, Mary Birdsong, Rob Huebel, Patricia Hastie
Cameo: Kaui Hart Hemmings
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash (based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings)
Review published January 8, 2012
George Clooney (The Men Who Stare at Goats, Up in the Air) stars as Matt King, a native Hawaiian lawyer who also is executor of the family trust, passed down from his native Hawaiian princess great great grandmother, worth millions in prime undeveloped Hawaiian real estate that many developers are seeking to convert to a lush resort. Time is running out on the trust, so it is time for him and his other family to sell the place the way they see fit, but his life takes a detour when his wife (Hastie, Pele O Ka Foodmat) suffers a tragic boating accident that finds her in a coma with, according to her doctors, no chance of recovery, and they are to pull her from life support per her wishes.
For the first time in as long as he can remember, he must take charge of his two daughters alone, the young and precocious Scottie (Miller, in her debut) and the teenage troublemaker in boarding school Alex (Woodley, "The Secret Life of the American Teenager"), and he hasn't a clue what to do. As Matt begins to put the final preparations in his wife's passing, he discovers that she had been unhappy with their relationship and had been having an affair. Matt wants to find out all there is to know about this affair, and learns far more about his wife, his daughters, and himself than he ever knew before the tragedy.
Loosely adapted from the 2007 book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, director and co-writer Alexander Payne's (Paris I Love You, Sideways) The Descendants traverses the tricky pathway between choice comedy and heart wrenching tragedy with marvelous finesse. As with other Payne efforts, emphasis is placed on authenticity, even when casting a star actor like Clooney to be front and center. He gives one of his finest, most nuanced performances, along with a very good cast of character actors and unknown talents all cast exceptionally well, with each stepping up to have their chance to shine. Shailene Woodley in particular stands out in the difficult role as Alex, whose character treads the line between petulant and likeable in a way that gives the character the dimension necessary to be entirely believable. Even Matthew Lillard (Without a Paddle, Wicker Park), mostly known for his fluffy but spirited roles in lesser films, seems fresh and interesting as the alleged fling real estate agent.
Like most other Payne efforts, The Descendants is worthy of the "Best Films of the Year" lists. Payne remains the master at seeing the folly of the human condition, even amid the worst of life's tragedies, and does so through keen insight and layered sensitivity, without any sense of derision for his characters or their sometimes outlandish foibles. Funny, smart, heartbreaking, stinging, and profoundly moving, but what makes it all a cut above most other films of its ilk is the ring of truth that chimes throughout. In the end, it's about appreciation of one's family, the one you've been neglecting rather than cherishing, even those not related by blood. But more than that, it's about being the one responsible, about making decisions, even unpopular ones, that make all the difference between moving forward for better or worse, or stagnating in selfish bickering and dysfunction.
©2012 Vince Leo