Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Losing a loved one is one of the hardest things a family has to face. Addition to the grief, the stress and anxiety of living without someone you love or care about is one of the most difficult concepts to grasp. What do you do? What do you say? Am I doing exactly what he or she would have wanted me to do? Is it ok for you to feel angry or upset at that person? Many questions arise but it’s usually the people we surround ourselves with that help us get through it.
Matt King is a Hawaiian lawyer and also descendant to a prime piece of Hawaiian land that could make him and his family extremely wealthy. Unforuntately while is supposed to make the biggest descsion of his life his wife is left in a coma after a boating accident. Now he must reconnect with his two daughters and confront the news that his wife was having an affair before the accident.
I mentioned in my review of “Young Adult” that Jason Reitman is one of our great American filmmakers, and I have no reserve about saying the same for director Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt) who is one of our best storytellers and best at mixing heavy drama with laugh-out-loud comedy. The story itself is nothing revelatory (The cheating wife, single parent, family problems etc.) but Payne writes and directs in such a way that the characters and story unwind in a way that it is the equivalent of good book unfolding chapter by chapter. Ironically the movie is based on a book, I haven’t read it but I’d imagine that Payne captured the tone to a tee. Like Reitman he usually finds humor and pathos from a main character that is equally sympathetic and redemptive, much like the other male lead roles in Alexander Payne‘s previous films. George Clooney as usual delivers a standout performance as Matt. Clooney has the unique ability to not really change up his persona but still able to make a believable character and always guarantee a knockout performance. “The Descendants” is no exception, Clooney gives one of the year’s best performances. His dealings with his daughters, his family, and his comatose wife are hilarious and heartbreaking. How many actors can act against a comatose woman and have one scene be unexpectedly riveting and another intensely heart-wrenching? Not many, but Clooney does.
The film is full of standout performances including surprising dramatic turns from usual comedic actors Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer. The other performance besides Clooney that deserves praise and consideration is Shailene Woodley as Alex King, Clooney’s daughter in the film. Woodley gives a standout performance on par with Clooney’s and is definitely able to hold her own. She has a bright acting character ahead of her if her performance as Alex is any indication. A great, honest portrayal of a teenager, emotionally outspoken, caring, and unpredictable, she is a perfect foil for Clooney’s father character. Other standouts include newcomers Amara Miller as Scottie, Clooney’s other daughter and Nick Krause as Sid, Woodley’s boyfriend in the film who plays off Clooney in some hilarious comic relief scenes and doesn’t end up as a one-note character.
Another great element of the film is it’s Hawaiian location. While most films use Hawaii as a beautiful and tropical beach location, “The Descendants” treats it like a normal American city and the city is painted in a way that it has never been captured on screen before. Urbanized and suburban mixed with beautiful beach/mountain scenery is a fantastic contrast visually and metaphorically. The hawaiian location seems like a gimmick at first to see Clooney living in Hawaii but it is an essential part to the story, much like Wine Country in Alexander Payne‘s “Sideways.”
Overall, the film is a great example of a good American drama. A film that is equal parts depressing, comedic, heartwarming, and honest. It’s one of the best of the year and one of Clooney’s best in his career. A refreshing motion picture drama that doesn’t have a higher ambition than being a great family drama about loss and being a family. Sometimes that’s all a great movie needs.