A film review by Craig J. Koban December 2, 2011

Rank:  #8


2011, R, 115 mins.


Matt King: George Clooney / Alexandra King: Shailene Woodley / Scottie King: Amara Miller / Sid: Nick Krause / Hugh: Beau Bridges / Mr. Thorson: Robert Forster / Brian Speer: Matthew Lillard / Julie Speer: Judy Greer

Directed by Alexander Payne / Written by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings

Very few films are as hilarious as they are heartbreaking as THE DESCENDANTS.  Here’s a family dramedy that finds humor in the most absurd and awkward of personal circumstances and then adeptly balances those merry moments with scenes that economically cut to painful and stirring emotional truths.  While it's superficially about the slow burn/psychological unraveling of a man facing his wife’s death, the film is also concerned with people with different prerogatives dealing with grief, misery, and coping.  The fact that THE DESCENDANTS manages to be side-splittingly funny and tragically depressing is a real achievement. 

The film was co-written and directed by Alexander Payne, making his return to the big screen after a seven year hiatus with his Oscar nominated SIDEWAYS (on my list of 2004’s Best Films) and now, more than ever, he can take claim to being one of the shrewdest and most observant humorists working in contemporary film.  All of his movies, from SIDEWAYS to ABOUT SCHMIDT to ELECTION have always focused on fringe areas of American society and have frequently delved into marriage, adultery, and relationships in general.  What makes his films stand far, far apart from the pack is how he manages to unpredictably examine his characters by pulling no punches whatsoever.  We often have no idea where his films are heading; just when we think we can see where the stories and characters are going, Payne pulls the rug from under us.  That, and he is able to traverse between misery and merriment with almost unparalleled skill. 

THE DESCENDANTS is a Hawaiian picture, but this is unlike any depiction of the island state that I’ve seen in the movies.  Instead of portraying Hawaii as it often is in the movies (as a picturesque and beautifully scenic tourist destination) Payne and his virtuoso cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael, make great attempts to normalize the surroundings.  There are moments indeed when they evoke a Hawaii of gorgeous scenic pleasures, but more often than not their Hawaii feels rougher, used, and more commonplace.  It creates a highly unique and off-kiltered setting for the film’s emotional rollercoaster storyline.  

George Clooney plays Matt King, a very successful lawyer and very affluent land owner that resides in Hawaii with his gorgeous, but recklessly gregarious wife (Patricia Hastie).  Matt also has two free-spirited daughters in 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailen Woodley) and 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller).  Beyond having a seemingly loving family unit and a great job, Matt also is the family trustee and beneficiary of a vast 25,000 arches of land, which has been passed down to him by his Hawaiian princess great-grandmother and “haole” (white) great grandfather.  He has the tricky task of deciding whether or not to keep the land and not ruin the paradise to real estate developers or sell it and make him and his army of cousins (led by Beau Bridges) rich for multiple lifetimes. 

Matt may seem to “have it all”, but beneath that cozy façade of family harmony lurks many nagging uncertainties.  He has been distant and cold with his wife and his children are semi-estranged from him, mostly because they perceive him as a “back-up parent.”  Things grow steadily worse for Matt and company when his wife is horrifically injured in a reckless boat race that leaves her in a coma and unable to live without life support.  Now all alone in the world, Matt is forced to find ways of coping with his grief over his wife’s condition while tending to his real estate dealings and his kids.  Then, to top things off, he is told that his wife is not going to make it, which means he has to inform his daughters and all of her friends.  When the hostilely anti-social Alexandra informs her dad that her mother had an affair with another man before her accident, Matt’s grieving process takes an unhealthy turn for the worse. 



THE DESCENDANTS is not a particularly easy motion picture to process and describe, mostly because it shuns most TV sitcom worthy contrivances that could have dominated its script; instead, it goes for a more satisfyingly complex  route.  It’s exceedingly rare to find dramedies where its characters thanklessly speak from the heart and often with a crippling frankness.  Payne is unusually democratic with his characters in the sense that he allows all of them to voice their inner concerns and most hurtful feelings towards one another.  It’s amusing and touching to see that the most well rounded and adjusted person of the pack is Alexandra’s moronic and socially retarded boyfriend (Nick Krause).  He is allowed to tag along with the family and initially feels tacked on for the purposes of comic relief, that is until the idiotic stoner has a startling moment where he reveals his own introverted pains over a past family incident.  I love it when films present a character that we think we all understand and they radically changes our view of him.  He’s not just a one-note buffoon. 

Payne, as he has done time and time again, allows an atmosphere for his stars to penetrate into the psyches of their respective characters and give Oscar worthy turns.  Clooney has emerged as of late as an actor of understated authority, but he has never exposed himself so openly and vulnerably as he does as Matt.  He completely shreds away any semblance of movie star vanity and hubris and immerses himself into the strange network of conflicting emotions that beset Matt.  Clooney is still a charming presence in the film, but his Matt is more heedlessly damaged goods than most of his past roles: The man has to hold on to his sanity when dealt with devastating news of his wife’s adultery while demonstrating himself as a true pillar of resolve to his kids and friends.  He also has to do all of that while independently coming to grips with everything that has been placed in front of him.  If you want to see Clooney as good as he’s ever been just consider the moment when Matt confronts his comatose wife in the hospital and viciously reveals exactly what he thinks of her while she’s in her most susceptible state.  It’s positively chilling.   

THE DESCENDANTS has two other performances worth mentioning that also should nab Academy attention.  First, there’s the revelatory work of Shailene Woodley (perhaps more known for her TV work) that inhabits her volatile and acid tongued teen rebel with an uncommon and powerful veracity.  Then there’s Robert Forster in a brief, but important role as Matt’s father-in-law who is bitterly angry at Matt for not being the husband he "could have been" to his daughter, believing that she was a good and honor bound woman that should have had better in life.  Forster's double-threat performance is marvelous because (a) he's hysterical for the way he callously rips into Matt and, in one great moment, Alexandra's boyfriend, and (b) just when you think he’s there to be the film’s obligatory cantankerous father figure, he shows up near the film’s conclusion and has a moment with his dying daughter that’s as sad as any scene from any film in 2011. 

THE DESCENDANTS, deep down, is a film about crazily unstable people dealing with unfathomable personal circumstances while trying to cope as best they can.  Payne is a director that does not deal in trivialities, nor does he like characters that are squeaky clean and easily decipherable.  Like Noah Baumbach, he is most comfortable with making audience members feel uncomfortable and unstable throughout his films: he revels in showing his deeply flawed personas, warts and all, and rarely gives them the cozy and routine sense of closure that permeate so many witless Hollywood formulas.  THE DESCENDANTS ends on a pitch-perfect shot and a moment - virtually dialogue-free - between Matt and his two daughters .  We don’t gain an immediate sense that everything will be okay with them, but rather that, as best as they can, they’re trying.  It’s not a sublimely happy ending because life simply doesn’t work that way, and Payne understands this better than most dramatists in the movies.   

  H O M E