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Director: Alexander Payne
Writers: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, Kaui Hart Hemmings
Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Patricia Hastie, Beau Bridges, Matt Corboy, Matt Esecson, Michael Ontkean, Stanton Johnston, Jon McManus, Hugh Foster, Tiare R. Finney, Tom McTigue, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer
Synopsis: With his wife Elizabeth on life support after a boating accident, Hawaiian land baron Matt King takes his daughters on a trip from Oahu to Kauai to confront the young real estate broker, who was having an affair with Elizabeth before her misfortune.
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language including some sexual references
What will we leave behind for our loved ones when we're gone...
In ilk of other movies about the concept of "love and loss", George Clooney stars in his latest comedic drama, "The Descendants." Although I wouldn't go on record to say this is Clooney's best film, but it does resonate it's own dramatic weight, along with clever comedic moments, that truly make it a joy to watch. The movie is based off the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, in which it depicts a land baron that tries to reconnect with his daughters after his wife's tragic boating accident.
Coincidentally, he's also having to deal with the task of selling a large piece of Hawaiin real estate for his family. The land has been passed down through generations, as it seems his family owns quite a large piece of property. However, most of his family is struggling financially, as many of them were foolish to spend their inheritance money, so he must decide who will be the lucky person to buy his families' land. The deal that he has in the works figures to make Matt (George Clooney) very wealthy along with his family.
However, the real focus of the film is how Matt deals with the loss of his wife, and how he tries to reconnect with his children again; particularly his eldest daughter, Alex (Shailene Woodley), who had a bit of a falling out with her mother before the accident. As the movie plays out, we soon learn that there's no hope left for Matt's wife, as the doctors tell him that there's no chance that she'll ever wake up again. The news doesn't exactly bode well for Matt at all; especially considering that her will states to take her off life support asap. To make matters worse, we also find out that the reason why Alex had a falling out with her mother was because she found out that her mom was cheating on her father, before the accident.
Needless to say, this puts Matt into a rather odd position here. At the same time, he does feel bad about neglecting his wife, when she was alive, but he also feels a bit portrayed by her as well, when faced with this realization. Add in the fact, that he not only has to handle a major real estate deal that could affect the financial future of his family, but he has to worry about breaking the news everyone too; which includes his in-laws, who aren't too shy on blaming the whole thing on him. Wow, talk about pressure.
Although from reading this premise, one would think "The Descendants" has all the makings of a soap opera, but you'd be wrong to assume such a thing. Granted, the movie does carry it's own dramatic weight, and touches upon many key questions that many of us wouldn't know how to answer, if we ever had to endure the same situation. However, this is where Alexander Payne's talents as a film maker really shines through. Not only does he manage to tell the audience an emotionally deep story, but he also manages to add bits of comedic elements to lighten up the film when necessary.
And unlike some dramas that fail to incorporate bits of humor, "The Descendants" pulls it off quite nicely, as one can definitely tell that the clever writing of this film's comedic timing resonates from Payne's knack for finding humor in everyday life experiences. Not only is the humor natural when it's implemented, but it's genuinely funny too without being over the top. One scene for example, it shows Matt confronting his wife's lover, with the news of her recently comatose condition. I won't say what happens in this scene, as I wouldn't want to spoil it for anyone. However, lets just say that it's well worth watching, and it's actually rather funny on how it plays out.
Alexander also does a wonderful job fleshing out the relationships of the characters perfectly. Unlike most directors who often rush developing their characters, while relying on cheap Hollywood cliches to touch the audience, Payne takes his time developing out the main characters individually, while fleshing out the relationships between the characters as well. Not only does this method work to make audiences feel a closer bond to the main characters, but it also makes them more relatable on a personal level.
As for George Clooney, what can I really say about the man that hasn't already been said by every other film critic out there? Although, it does seem that George always likes to play movie roles that lean closer to his strengths as an actor, but he does it quite well. As I said earlier, I wouldn't say this is his best performance, but I would argue that this definitely one of his more entertaining ones.
As for the rest of the supporting cast, they were firing on all cylinders as well. Matthew Lillard plays the perfect weasel bad guy that almost destroys Matt's marriage. Beau Bridges does an excellent job portraying the greedy relative that constantly reminds Matt the need to sell their families' property. Amara Miller is just so sweet and funny in this movie that you can't help but laugh at most of her antics. Plus, I thought Nick Krause was excellent as the idiotic boyfriend to Alex, as his performance was just hilariously funny. As for Shailene Woodley, she's definitely quite the firecracker in this film. Although, I can't say I remember seeing her in any other movie, but I thought the chemistry between her and Clooney was spot on, and it definitely helped carry most of the film. Indeed, I could probably go on forever about the performances of this movie, but I digress.
However, lets not forget about the cinematography in this movie, along with the editing. Although one would think with a setting like Hawaii, we'd probably see mostly beach front property to give the illusion of a tropical paradise, as to be expected. However, what I loved about this film was how it not only showed us the tropical side Hawaii, but it also showed us the mundane life of it as well. Showing us the neighborhoods, the streets, and various places to give the audience the impression that behind the flashy ads, Hawaii is just like any other place in the world. The people there aren't always surfing, and drinking pina colatas by the beach. No, like any other place, Hawaii is filled with real people that go through everyday problems like everyone else in the world.
Unfortunately, the film does have it's own share of flaws. Although most critics have been giving this movie a perfect rating, while others boldly say they fail to find anything remotely wrong with it. However, unlike most film critics, I do try to look at things from a mainstream audience perspective as well as my own. Granted, you don't have to agree with the methodology, but I believe it's the most fair way to judge a film. Although I did say earlier that the film does a great job incorporating humor into itself, the sad reality is that most of humor doesn't happen until about midway through the film.
Meaning, the first half is pure drama. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with dramas at all, but if you look at most sites, this film is listed as a comedic drama; which isn't really a true statement. No, this is a drama with bits of comedic elements mixed into it, which is added midway through the film. To make matters worse, the humor is a lot more subtle as well versus Payne's other films such as "Sideways" and "About Schmidt." In those other films, the humor was a lot more obvious for mainstream audiences to pick up on; whereas "The Descendants", you have to really be into dramas to appreciate it like I do. Not saying this is a bad movie by any means, but it takes a certain required taste to truly appreciate it.
In the end, I'd have to give this film a three and a half out of four. It's definitely a great drama for anyone to watch, and it's definitely worth seeing in theaters.