Director: Alexander Payne
Writers: Alexander Payne, Mat Faxon, Jim Rash (screenplay), Kaui Hart Hemmings (novel)
Stars: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Robert Forster
Release date: November 18, 2011
Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Running time: 115 minutes
Best part: The charismatic performances.
Worst part: The laboured pace.
George Clooney seems to enjoy playing the common working man; appearing perfectly fine on the outside but damaged and wanting more on the inside. He once again visits this character’s journey of self discovery and change in The Descendants, a film about letting your personal life spiral out of control when focusing on professional but less important matters.
Clooney Plays Matt King, a Lawyer facing several major problems at once. His wife is in a deep coma after a boating accident and has a problem letting her go before their marital problems are resolved. He must also finalise a deal for the sale of 25, 000 acres of Hawaiian land owned by his ancestors. This disrupts the already troubled relationship between him and his two rebellious daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley), who continually ignore his every rule and request. Thankfully the film never steers into largely corny or depressing territory.
Based on a book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, director Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt) creates a very charming, funny, yet sentimental view of a family in crisis. The very human drama and characters propel this film above others of its type. The awkward situations and conversations are directed delicately, leading to a hilarious response from more than one party every time. Clooney plays its straight as a down to Earth guy struggling to keep his head above water. The desperation to balance all of his conflicts makes you forget about Clooney’s real life cool cat persona. His relationship with his daughters and Alex’s dopey friend Sid (Nick Krause) is the strongest element as the clash of duelling personalities defines the importance of family connections. Much like Payne’s earlier films, The Descendants‘ characters place their personalities in full view, making them both sympathetic and detestable at the same time. Woodley delivers a stand out debut performance as Alex, succinctly expressing anger for her parent’s mistakes. The relationship between Matt and Alex develops throughout the film as they try to find the answers to multiple problems while repairing the shattered state of their family.
“Hey, I’m doing you a favour. I could go out there and fuck you up, so get a better attitude!” (Matt King (George Clooney), The Descendants).
The beautifully filmed Hawaiian locations provide an emotional contrast to The Descendants‘ story. Matt King’s honest narration in the first act, telling the vision of Hawaii as a ‘paradise’ where it should go, provides a strong foundation of how his mind works in these situations. King’s painfully harsh speech to his comatose wife after finding out her biggest secret illustrates the extent of his agonising situation. Leaving him, meant Matt had to do everything himself instead of just being the ‘back-up parent’. At the same time he tries to be a nice guy but is given nothing but abuse by everyone around him. Characters such as cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), a witty and spiritual hippy-surfer strongly in favour of selling the land, Elizabeth’s angry, ageing father Scott Thorson (Robert Forster) and real estate mogul Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) are both like-able and unlike-able, making them incredibly realistic. Payne’s direction never allows you to dislike the characters despite the uncomfortable emotions directed by them towards Clooney’s determined and blunt character.
Payne, being on of Hollywood’s most interesting and prolific dramedy filmmakers, isn’t afraid to take things personally. His latest effort is a game changer in many respects, making all think a little differently about love, loss, Clooney, and paradise.