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The Descendants Review

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RATING:
(3 STARS)

Call Alexander Payne’s films slight if you must, but the man has an uncanny knack for tackling the human condition with complexity and honesty, levity and sadness. With The Descendants, he reaches a new level. All the elements I and many others loved about Sideways and About Schmidt are executed here to near perfection. Of Payne’s “humanist trilogy,” this film is the funniest, most emotionally involving, and best-acted.

Matt King (George Clooney) is an emotionally distant man going through a series of personal crises. His family is deciding whether or not to sell a large parcel of untouched Hawaiian land that would make them all filthy rich, and the pressure to make the final call on a buyer is ultimately up to him. Just before decision time, his wife is in a horrific boating accident that leaves her in a coma that she’ll most likely never come out of. So it’s up to him to tell their two daughters, 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), as well as some family and close friends. But when Alex tells her father about her mother’s affair, he decides to search the islands for her lover, while searching for some closure that might never come.

The film is essentially a character study, and as such, it needs a strong central performance to really work. Luckily, George Clooney is up to the task. This is the best work he’s ever done, bar none. As a viewer, you can never quite get a handle on what kind of guy he is. We know he’s an aloof husband and father and that he has no idea how he should be acting in this awful situation, but he’s not deliberately foolish. It’s as if a family just wasn’t meant for him. His effort is what keeps us onboard with him, and Clooney is so good at keeping us rooting for him without overdoing it at all.

The entire film is predicated around these split-second emotional decisions regarding how he should act toward someone or what he should tell them. When his wife’s father (played by the great Robert Forster) visits the hospital, he berates Matt—and even Alex—for not being good enough to her. He tells Matt she was a wonderful, devoted wife, and you can almost see the angel and devil on each shoulder arguing over whether or not he should tell his father-in-law the truth. It’s material like this that keeps you thinking about The Descendants, wondering what you’d do in such situations.

The film is also both tremendously funny and extremely poignant. Clooney gets a lot of laughs from the way he reacts to both his children and Alex’s boyfriend, Sid (Nick Krause), who’s a very broad character but is nice to have around considering the bevy of gut-wrenching scenes Payne throws at you. Alex and Scottie also generate some funny moments when they fight, curse, or completely ignore Matt. They don’t show their father much respect for most of the film, but that sentiment rarely expresses itself in an obvious way, making their rebelliousness quite entertaining.

As far as tears go, you’ll almost certainly shed a few. Late in the film, of course, there’s one moment during which I audibly heard people in the theater sobbing and moaning. Earlier on, a pair of scenes had me feeling a little misty-eyed. When Matt and Alex, with the help of a grief counselor, tell Scottie that her mom isn’t waking up, her slow-to-comprehend reaction is heartbreaking. Another is when Matt’s father-in-law finally says goodbye to his daughter. Forster’s character isn’t very likable, so seeing someone with such a hardened exterior really show vulnerability moved me. This all speaks to outstanding supporting performances from Forster, Miller, and Woodley.

My one minor quibble with the film is the laborious set-up, during which the screenplay felt a little clunky, but the end result is difficult to argue with. The Descendants will make you laugh and cry and gives you enough food for thought that it lingers with you. It took Payne a long time to make this movie (seven years, in fact, since Sideways), but The Descendants was definitely worth the wait.

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