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The Descendants Movie Review - -

The Descendants 

    Reviewed by Damien Straker on January 7th, 2012
    Twentieth Century Fox
presents a film directed by Alexander Payne
    Screenplay by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, based on     the novel 'The Descendants' by Kaui Hart Hemmings
George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller,     
    Matthew Lillard, Nick Krause and Judy Greer

    Running Time:
115 mins
    Rating: M
    Released:  January 12th, 2012



The Descendants opens in Hawaii with a woman named Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) cruising in a speed boat and then the screen fades to black. We discover that she is the wife of Matt King (George Clooney) and that during her boating race she suffered an injury that has left her in a coma. Matt is a lawyer looking to sell off the land he inherited from his ancestors because the trust is set to expire in a few years. As a father he is a failure. He doesn't know how to look after his youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller), whose behaviour has deteriorated in the wake of her mother's accident. Matt's other daughter is Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). She's seventeen and lives away in a boarding school. She's reckless and aggressive but Matt needs her help in looking after Scottie. When Alexandra reveals a secret of her mother's, Matt is sent into a blind rage and looks to track down a man named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). Compounding this is that he needs to tell his other relatives about the true fate of his wife.

The imminence of death creates such a spiral in our minds that we lose sight of all that is beautiful in the world. This is the theme of Alexander Payne's adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemming's novel. Payne is a writer/director who, with films such as Election, About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2004), has mastered the art of small humanistic comedy-dramas. He is fascinated by how the ordinary and the banal are often the most chaotic and life changing adventures. It is easy to see why Payne was attracted to the source material. There are strong resemblances to About Schmidt, which was also about a man concerned with death and isolated from his child. Knowing the initial premise, I was concerned that the films might be too similar to each other. Payne is a gifted filmmaker but it remains perplexing that this is just the first film he has made in six or seven years. There was always the thought that he might be inclined to repeat himself. What impresses here though is the way that he has refined his craft. Hawaii is a unique, beautiful setting, sumptuously photographed by cinematographer Phedon Papmichael. Payne opts to use this aesthetic beauty to enhance the thematic concerns of his narrative. The beautiful opening shots of the green landscapes and beaches are juxtaposed with intercuts of the cityscapes, traffic jams, the sick and the homeless. We're told that this is no paradise and Matt adopts this mindset by spending much of the film tracking down his nemesis Brian. He carries a photo of him on the beach, forgetting all of the positive things around him. 

In the course of his absence, Payne seems to have lost a lot of his cynicism regarding character development. Growth stems from seeing a deeply troubled and angry man develop into someone who appreciate life's pleasures. Yet most impressive is that every character in this film, large or small, has a degree of real humanity. Many characters surprise us because they don't act the way we think they will or have come to expect from similar movies. When Matt finally tracks down Brian he is not the jerk that we assume he will be. He's an ordinary man on holidays with his wife (Judy Greer) and their two small children. She is a lovely addition to the film: extremely pleasant and welcoming but painfully unaware. Brian explains his mistake to Matt and reveals his commitment to his own wife. He is a weak man but we believe him anyway. Similarly, through many of these adventures Alexandra drags along her dopey surfy friend Sid (Nick Krause). He's an oaf but a mostly harmless one and he moves us unexpectedly when he reveals his own personal traumatic experience and how he deals with his problems. Payne's control over these scenes is deft and unintrusive. He has confidence in both the actors and audience, refusing to linger over the most poignant moments. His restraint builds a quiet realism and in turn we're met by a film that is regularly very moving. This sounds daunting but the film is also hysterically funny too. The humour is never cheap or obvious. The dialogue, often with a self-depreciative tone, is employed to reveal character and enrich the comedy and drama. A lot of the comments from the side characters are deliberately inappropriate, showing their lack of empathy or understanding of a situation.

The effect is twofold: some scenes are very funny but others are built with powerful dramatic irony. There's a gutting moment when Elizabeth's father is telling everyone how good he thinks his daughter has been and how she deserved better, when we already know her secret. I can think of very few other films this year that have used dialogue as intelligently. Well-cast actors give the dialogue humour and feeling. Clooney's performance can be summarised as entirely glossless. It's a great part for him because he's given a range of emotions to work through, rather than a corridor of self-parody and smugness. He reveals a character who is helpless and yet desperate to control his children. He tries to be self-assuring too, telling us that his wife is going to be okay. Payne contrasts this with a high-angle shot of a spiralling staircase, foreshadowing devastating scenes of Matt's torment and verbal rage. A more controlled and empowered individual, who learns to make his own decisions, emerges convincingly. Clooney's fine work is also rounded by his impeccable and always reliable comic timing. This is a very impressive performance and one that could potentially earn him a Best Actor Oscar. Shailene is a standout as an impulsive, angst ridden teen, equally enraged and frustrated by the same woman as her father. There were few films in 2011 that moved me as much as this one. It's one of the year's best.


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