Descendants, The

This year I’m trying to get a jump on the Oscar season by compiling a list from the early predictions by several prognosticators.  We’ll see how that works out.  What I have now is a rather intimidatingly long list of films that are all coming out in the next few weeks.  As a result I may not be able to provide you with my usual profound insights due to being pressed for time.

One of the major risks with making my list before the nominations are announced is that I may waste my time on a film that ultimately I don’t have to see.  If the movie in question is another provocative screed by Lars Von Trier or a pretentious snooze fest by Terrence Malick, that situation could be disappointing,  but not with The Descendants, which is a pretty safe bet.  It’s near the top of most of those lists of predictions.  It is also the long awaited return to filmmaking for Alexander Payne, who directed About Schmidt and Sideways both films that received much love from the Academy.  So I think I’m safe here.

Matt King, played by George Clooney, is  a high powered attorney in Hawaii.  He is descended from Hawaiian royalty and has a large extended family who own a large tract of unspoiled coastline.    Due to tax laws, the family needs to sell the land and they are considering offers from several developers.  Matt is the sole executor of the trust so the decision is his but he’s promised to go with the majority vote from the family.  The deal is making news on the islands and most of the Hawaiian natives don’t want them to sell.  

All this is taking him away from his family, which he never really had time for anyway.   Matt is married with two girls, Alexandra, played by Shailene Woodley, and Scottie, played by Amara Miller, but he doesn’t seem very happy in the relationship.  Consequently, the daughters don’t really know  him and his wife, Elizabeth, played by Patricia Hastie, is having an affair.

Matt finds out about it when Elizabeth has a boating accident that puts her into a coma.  This puts him in the situation of dealing with his feelings about the betrayal while taking care of the girls and negotiating the land deal at the same time.  Eventually he decides to confront the other man and of course he takes the girls with him.

To me the defining characteristic of an Alexander Payne movie is the roller coaster of emotions that he puts his main characters through.  It takes a talented actor to follow the script’s twists and turns and George Clooney does it with style.  In the first scene, he’s talking about how once she recovers and this land deal goes through, he’ll mend his ways and start being a better husband and father.  But later when he finds out about the affair, he tells her comatose body, “I was going to ask for a divorce.”  Was that true?  It doesn’t matter, because that’s what he was feeling at the time.  Two contradictory emotions within maybe twenty minutes and Clooney sells it.

The other performances are good too.  Shailene Woodley stands out as the older daughter, who is struggling under the burden of being the one to find out about the affair and telling her father.  She’s also balking at her new role as a mentor and caretaker for her sister.  In the end she rises to the occasion.  It’s a masterful portrayal of a girl being thrust into adulthood and fighting it every step of the way.  

There are a few quibbles.  The plot meanders at times.  Alexandra insists on bringing a male friend named Sid, played by Nick Krause, on their various errands to inform family members about Elizabeth’s fatal condition.  It’s kind of funny in a quirky sort of way, and Matt and Sid have a bonding moment.  But Sid really does nothing to advance the plot and I don’t understand why he’s there.

The Descendants is a worthy, if not perfect return to filmmaking for Alexander Payne.


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December 2011
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