Review: The Descendants (2011)

Director: Alexander Payne

****

George Clooney has played some varied characters in his day, but now comes a different challenge. Brace yourselves; in The Descendants, Clooney is playing a family man! Kids and everything! If nothing else, The Descendants will offer more false hope to all those women who would gladly walk over their own husbands just to stand next to him.

Alexander Payne has made audiences fall for some very average Joes in his films. From Jack Nicholson’s pathetic widower in About Schmidt to Paul Giamatti’s (barely) functioning alcoholic in Sideways, Payne empathizes with the down-on-his-luck schlub. Matt King (Clooney) is different, however. For starters, he lives in Hawaii. As the movies have told us over and over, nothing bad ever happens in Hawaii; it’s nothing but beaches and luaus and contested presidential birth certificates. Yet, in this idyll is Matt, his daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) and his comatose wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie). The film opens with her smiling whilst riding a jetski, and this ride ends in the coma from which she never awakes. As if this wasn’t bad enough, Matt discovers that Elizabeth may have been unfaithful to him. This development comes as Matt tries to reconnect with his daughters and his law firm tries to negotiate a complicated land deal that could make him and his extended family very wealthy. Here are people who have everything they could want but little they need; as they learn, human connections are valuable things. They’re also funny things too, as proven as we watch a father and his teenage daughter bond over finding the guy who slept with their wife/mother. Is this a normal family activity in Hawaii? Answers on a postcard, please.

For all the talk of land deals, strained family relationships and cheating, The Descendants never rings false. It might be a little more keen to laugh at its characters than Sideways, but it’s simply too lovely to let it get out of hand. When Matt and Alexandra finally confront the other man (Matthew Lillard), they question whether or not to reveal all in front of his wife (the ever-wonderful Judy Greer). Any other comedy would have had them drop the bombshell regardless. It might be more cathartic, but then this paradise isn’t that kind of idyll. Payne goes all out to ensure we see the unseen Hawaii. There’s not just beaches and bikinis; there are cities, roads, green verdant hills and real people here too. Adapting Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel, Payne and co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash establish the potentially convoluted and disparate plot strands before tying them together with genuine warmth and plenty of chuckles. When Alexandra reveals her mother’s infidelity, try not to laugh as a paunchy Clooney runs down the street to confront his neighbours about what they know. Clooney forgoes his smarmy ways and embraces genuine affection and that paunch in a touching performance. Any film that brings the best out of Lillard (Wow, Scream was a long time ago, wasn’t it?), Beau Bridges and Robert Forster is onto a winner. Woodley is the best of the bunch, breaking out with a gutsy turn which keeps enough distance yet never lapses into moody teen histrionics. Her performance is much like The Descendants as a whole: initially rather adolescent (yeah, nice patronizing voiceover, George!) before revealing hidden depths and great character. It may not make you want to move to Hawaii but, as The Descendants constantly reminds us, paradise is what you make it.

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One thought on “Review: The Descendants (2011)

  1. Nice review – I’ve seen the trailer a few times, and a a strong interest in seeing this film. Buit so far I’ve not found that it is playing in town (Sarasota, FL). I could drive more than 100 miles round trip to see it in Tampa, but I think I’ll wait.

    I wonder about your comment about his (Clooney’s paunchiness). I thought he was running funny because he was wearing flip-flops on his feet. But again I haven’t seen the film – just the trailer.

    Thabks again for the perspectives and the very cool website that you have here.

    jmmm

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