Originally Reviewed – 11/27/2011
Brutal honesty mixed with dark comedy has become the hallmark of director Alexander Payne. With films like About Schmidt and the Oscar nominated Sideways on his resume, Payne has become known for creating complex characters and putting them in strange yet often hilarious situations. With his latest film, The Descendants, Payne puts George Clooney and three young newcomers in a tropical paradise that provides a beautiful backdrop to a film that just may be the most emotionally gripping work he’s ever done. Fans fearful that this film fails to match the comic beats of his previous work have to little to worry about as Payne has become a master of balance, providing a nice dose of humor to go with the tragedy. The result is the best film he’s ever directed.
Clooney plays Matt King, real estate lawyer in his native Hawaii and absentee father of two children, Alexandra and Scottie, played by newcomers Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller. Clooney is wrapped up in a number of different issues: the sale of a premier piece of untouched Hawaiian beachfront that’s been in his family for generations, a life threatening accident that has left his wife in a coma and the sudden care of his two rebellious daughters. While this seems like more drama than a Lifetime movie special, Payne has an uncanny knowledge of human emotion, writing a screenplay that’s heavy handed but never overbearing. This is not a raucous comedy to be sure, but a well balanced one. I’ve often said comedy works best when it involves characters you care about and The Descendants does not disappoint in that respect.
On the acting front, Clooney has always been a very reliable actor and in the role of the daddy in tumult, he puts forth his best performance since 2009’s Up In The Air. Clooney creates a believable and complex character, fully channeling the pathos in the script. This is a tough role, even tougher than the one he played in Up In The Air and he hits his marks perfectly in what very well could be an Oscar nominated performance. The rest of the cast is equally wonderful, especially newcomers Woodley and Miller as Clooney’s children. Much like the kids in 2010’s The Kids Are Alright, the siblings are believable and engaging, propelling the film thorough the difficult subject matter.
The film is also benefited from a fantastic script and some fine direction from Mr. Payne. The setting of the movie provides some great juxtaposition between the toughness of the situation and the surrounding beauty. As somebody who has spent a good deal of time in Hawaii, I’m well aware of how revered tradition is to the native people and Payne elegantly captures this with the story point of the land sale. The film is full of nod and winks to the Hawaiian way of life and while many viewers may not catch these little nuggets, they were well received by a “haole” like me. The actors are also wonderfully directed, something that should be no surprise to those familiar with Payne’s previous work. The script is biting, sometimes shocking but always relatable, providing humor in the most dire of situations.
If you are really curious about what the central theme of the film is, all you need to do is look at the title. The children are dealing with being descendants of a wealthy yet absent father, the family is wrestling with being descendants of Hawaiian royalty and Clooney is swimming upstream against the pressures of keeping a crumbling family unit together. A complex yet fully entertaining film that hits all the right buttons, The Descendents should get more than a few looks for some awards come January. While I do think this movie will be pushed out by the influx of top contenders being released this month, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Golden Globe or two in the future for this well made film. One the most satisfying films I’ve seen all year, Payne continues his tradition of being a director of patience, empathy and wonderful storytelling.
Score – 90%