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Alexander Payne is back and thank God he’s back! It’s been a while since Sideways, which I admired, now Payne has given his next masterpiece and just like his previous works, this too has Oscars written all over it.
Everything about THE DESCENDANTS is close to perfect from the writing, directing to the performances. The film is a gentle but firm and genuine ring of emotions, so well-crafted that you get even more and more interested in the characters as the story progresses. George Clooney has given some outstanding performances in the past but his performance in THE DESCENDANTS proves that he truly is one of the finest actors of all time. And for the record, I think Shailene Woodley deserves a best supporting nod…
Matt King (George Clooney), a husband and father of two girls, must re-examine his past and navigate his future when his wife is in a boating accident off Waikiki. He awkwardly attempts to repair his relationship with his daughters – 10 year-old precocious Scottie (Amara Miller) and rebellious 17 year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) – while wrestling with a decision to sell his family’s land. Handed down from Hawaiian royalty and missionaries, the Kings own some of the last priceless virgin parcels of tropical beach in the islands.
When Alexandra drops the bombshell that her mother was in the midst of a romantic fling at the time of the accident, Matt has to take a whole new look at his life, not to mention his legacy, during a week of momentous decisions. With his girls in tow, he embarks on a haphazard search for his wife’s lover. Along the way, in encounters alternately funny, troublesome and transcendent, he realizes he’s finally on course toward rebuilding his life and family.
I’ve never read Kaui Hart Hemmings’ book that this film is based on so I can’t make the comparison but no one doubts Payne’s ability to adapt a book, About Schdmit and Sideways speak for themselves and this time his help comes from fellow scribes Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.
THE DESCENDANTS’ first and ultimate strength is the story that tells you that nothing is ever that simple. There are always layers to a situation, even the characters that we’d like to quickly judge, the film wouldn’t let us do so because it would immediately present a side of him/her that gives us a reason to sympathize. It is never that simple and there will always be something that makes you understand why they are in a certain position or mindset.
I think there are similarities between Paul Giamatti’s character in Sideways, Jack Nicholson’s character in About Schmidt, and George Clooney‘s character, Matt King, in The Descendants.
Payne wants you to feel for his protagonists but at the same time makes you see that they are somewhat responsible for causing whatever estranged relationship that they’re experiencing with their loved ones.
I think it’s great that Payne starts the story off with a fine print reminder that Hawaii is not all that it’s cracked up to be. By showing us the cities and some of the poor living conditions of its inhabitants, all of that serves as the perfect intro for the journey of an imperfect little family that the film will have you embark on.
The humor in this movie is just brilliant! It’s absolutely hilarious and brilliant! There’s no better way to describe it. The humor speaks a lot about the characters and it breaks the tension and keeps the story from being too melodramatic.
The actors, not just George Clooney, in this film give their all for their roles. Shailene Woodley who plays Matt’s (George) eldest daughter, Alexandra, represents your typical angry teenager, Shailene has a tremendous on screen presence for her age, I enjoy how her character teams up with her father and her father, reluctant at first but eventually willing to accept her company because he knows that he can’t do this all by himself.
Payne has returned to his field of expertise, which is a road trip movie, I’d consider The Descendants a road trip movie but it’s not so much what the characters encounter along the way as it is about how they come to accept each other as they spend time together.
As I said earlier, it’s never that simple. Even the airhead kid that follows them around has a good side, the grandfather who’s a jerk to Matt, is just essentially a very protective father who loves his daughter and wants to only think the best of her, you could even feel for Matthew Lillard’s and Judy Greer’s characters and they all revolve around Matt King who wants to get a certain truth but also understands that there are certain doors that don’t necessarily need to be opened.
And just like Giamatti and Nicholson, Clooney plays Payne’s latest character with such ease and respect. There’s a line in the film where Clooney says that he’s just trying to keep his head above water, that exactly describes how Clooney plays Matt, you can tell that he’s juggling a lot of things in his head and so how he’s going to keep them and himself together is the challenge.
The film is made in such a manner that even though the runtime extends longer, you wouldn’t mind at all because you’ll be ok with following the story and following the characters to the ends of the earth.
Clooney’s performance is one for the books. THE DESCENDANTS is a monumental achievement, definitely one of this year’s best.
GRADE: 5 out of 5
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