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4 reviews, 9 user ratings

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Descendants, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"A Unique And Dramatic Situation"
5 stars

The commercials for "The Descendants," featuring a goofy-looking George Clooney running around Hawaii in an ostensible search for his wife's lover, make it look more or less like a straightforward comedy, perhaps in the mode of the films that he has done in the past with the Coen Brothers. Like many movie ad campaigns these days, this approach offers a somewhat skewed take on the material in order to lure audiences into the theater to see something that they might not have bothered with if its contents had been presented in a more accurate manner. Under normal circumstances, this is the kind of move that might warrant some criticism if it weren't for a couple of extenuating circumstances. For one thing, the film is a complicated mixture of comedy and drama that is not the kind of thing that can be easily summarized within the context of a 30-second advertisement. For another, there is the fact that if the ads do lure audiences into theaters, the end result is that they will wind up seeing one of the most thoughtful, moving and, yes, funny films of the year--not exactly a bummer of an end result when all is considered.

In the film, Clooney plays Matt King and when we first get a look at him, he would seem to have all the ingredients for a perfect life--he lives in Oahu with wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) and daughters Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), he has a thriving law business and, thanks to the various wheelings and dealings of his ancestors, is in charge of a family trust controlling 250,000 acres of unspoiled property that is potentially worth millions of dollars. However, it quickly becomes apparent that in his case, paradise is not what it is cracked up to be. His family has decided to sell their holdings to developers and cash in their birthright for huge sums of money and he is the one who has to decide to whom they will sell out. On the home front, although he has tried to be a good father to his daughter, he has admittedly been somewhat distant and has largely left the raising of them up to his wife. That, along with everything else in his life, changes when his wife falls into a coma after being critically injured in a terrible boating accident and the doctors inform him that her condition is irreversible and that since she signed a "Do Not Resuscitate" form, they will be taking her off of life support. This forces Matt into the unfathomable position of being thrust under the grimmest of circumstances into becoming the primary parent to daughters that he loves but doesn't fully understand and to make matters worse, once he brings the troubled Alex home from boarding school, she drops a bombshell by informing him that Elizabeth was cheating on him.

With one daughter who is resentful of practically everything, another who is too young to fully process what is going on and Sid (Nick Krause), Alex's goofball boyfriend who tags along to ensure her willing participation, Matt sets off to inform family and friends of Elizabeth's imminent demise while trying to somehow reconnect with his daughters. Along the way, he uncovers the identity of Elizabeth's lover, slick real estate agent Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) and when he finds out that he is over in Kauai on business, he follows along, with his daughters and Sid in tow, in order to confront his rival. When Matt and Alex finally track the cad down, however, they find him in the company of his own wife (Judy Greer) and kids and the situation becomes a little more complicated. With that taken care of, Matt returns home so that he can finally come to terms with both the impending loss of his wife, a woman who is becoming more unfamiliar to him with each revelation, and the impending sale of the land that represents his birthright, regardless of the quirks of fate that put it in his hands.

Based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, "The Descendants" was directed and co-written by Alexander Payne, his first film since his acclaimed 2004 hit "Sideways" (not counting his contributions to a screenplay that eventually mutated into what is now known and reviled as "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry) and although he has made wonderful films in the past, this is by far his most notable work since his 1999 breakthrough "Election" and quite possibly the finest work of his entire career. While I have admired all of Payne's past films (which also include the little-seen abortion satire "Citizen Ruth" and Jack Nicholson vehicle "About Schmidt) to one degree or another, they have, with the exception of the glorious "Election," not been without their flaws--some have proven on a second viewing to be not quite as substantial as they appeared to be at first blush and he has sometimes allowed his penchant for dark and discomfiting humor to slip over into outright nastiness. With "The Descendants," he is working with extremely tricky material that veers from humor to heartbreak in the blink of an eye and which requires a more empathic approach towards his characters than he has utilized in the past and he pulls them off beautifully.

There are any number of scenes on display here that could have gone wrong in a dozen different ways--the one in which Elizabeth's father (Robert Forster) angrily confronts Matt with the notion that his daughter might never have been on the boat in the first place if he had been a better husband, the ones in which both Matt and Alex confront Elizabeth as she lies unconscious and uncomprehending in her hospital bed, the one in which Matt and Alex meet Brian and his family, the one in which Brian's wife makes a surprise appearance in the last place one might expect to find her--and time after time, Payne, along with co-writers Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, find just the right notes to hit. Although the film is filled with plenty of characters and incidents, it never feels rushed or overly crowded as it goes about its way. There are plenty of moments of high comedy to be had but they grow organically from the material instead of coming across like standard sitcom schtick. There are plenty of moments of high melodrama as well but they are also handled with a deft enough touch so that they have the intended impact without devolving into soap opera histrionics. The end result is a real powerhouse that may surprise many viewers when they realize just how genuinely amused and touched they have become by what they have just witnessed.

One aspect of Payne's work that has been remarkably consistent has been his handling of his actors and "The Descendants" is no exception. Over the years, George Clooney has gone from being the good-looking hunk in OR scrubs on the tube to one of the most reliable actors working today and one of the few who regularly eschews easy blockbuster paydays to work on more challenging and complex material and his performance here is one of his very best. Although there is usually an odd schism when a big-name actor is asked to play an utterly ordinary person, especially when the surrounding cast members have nowhere near the same amount of star wattage, Clooney effectively dials it down in order to play a normal guy thrust into abnormal circumstances who doesn't have all the answers and who is frankly struggling to keep his wildly diverging emotions in some form of check. As in his previous films, Payne has rounded out the cast with a diverse assortment of performers and as far as I can recall, there isn't a bum turn in the bunch--even the generally annoying Matthew Lillard shines and shows unexpected depth as the lover whose bit of fun has unexpectedly morphed into something entirely different--but there are two that deserve special attention. As the sullen Alex, Shailene Woodley, previously known only for the exceptionally silly basic cable melodrama "The Secret Life of the American Teenager," is a real find and transforms what could have been a walking cliche into someone who is, even in her most unlikable moments, both recognizable and understandable; the moment in which she jumps into a swimming pool to react to the news about her mother is a real stunner. As the wife of the real estate sleaze, Judy Greer has only a couple of scenes but also makes the most of them and her final appearance is so unexpectedly powerful and heartbreaking that it will hopefully convince other filmmakers that she is capable of doing much more than playing the best pal to the female lead that has been her niche for the last few years.

Over the years, there have been innumerable films featuring people coping with grief and loss while trying to figure out how to soldier on with life. In most cases, such films have been content to traffic in obvious emotional beats leading up to convenient and familiar moments of catharsis that leave the characters and viewers feeling all warm and fuzzy and content without ever doing much of anything to deserve them. By comparison, there is not a single moment in "The Descendants" that most viewers won't recognize from real life, things ranging from stupid and hurtful familial squabbles to the awkward moments in hospitals when doctors attempt to convey the worst possible news in the best possible manner and wind up failing miserably. And yet, despite all the potentially dark and depressing subject manner, it still somehow works as a wise and wonderfully observant comedy as well as drama and when it comes to the end, it miraculously manages to hit upon a final moment that is both perfect and perfectly earned.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=22388&reviewer=389
originally posted: 11/17/11 21:56:36
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 New York Film Festival For more in the 2011 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 47th Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 47th Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2011 Austin Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Telluride Film Festival For more in the 2011 Telluride Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 34th Starz Denver Film Festival For more in the 34th Starz Denver Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/14/12 mr.mike Well worth seeing , but not perfect. 4 stars
5/13/12 Simon Good because it's about forgiveness, not great because it's JUST about forgiveness. 4 stars
4/19/12 Monday Morning Outstanding - the perfect movie in almost every way. 5 stars
4/11/12 The Taitor Good performances and story, overall it's a sad story with some comedy added in 4 stars
2/27/12 Uncle Sneaky Solid flick. Realistic ending.Worthy of its Oscar. 4 stars
12/28/11 Quigley I loved this film. Beautifully made and acted. I so wish that Payne would make more films. 5 stars
12/15/11 R.W. Welch Wry family drama, carried by Clooney's adept perf. B+ 4 stars
11/25/11 bert kaplan Powerful,entertaining, great acting 5 stars
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  16-Nov-2011 (R)
  DVD: 13-Mar-2012


  DVD: 13-Mar-2012

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