From Alexander Payne, the creator of the Oscar-winning SIDEWAYS, THE DESCENDANTS is set in Hawaii and follows the unpredictable journey of an American family at a crossroads. 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.
Alexander Payne's last feature length film was Sideways in 2004; the film went on to win numerous awards including an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay. Seven years later Payne writes and directs The Descendants, a film revolving around the tragedy of a mother's accident, and the repercussions that occur when one man is faced with truth and consequences. Maintaining the darker humor life presents in reality motif, as Payne did in prior films Election and About Schmidt, The Descendants is a film full of rich complicated characters, the greater two being Matt King (George Clooney) and Alexandra King (Shailene Woodley). As father and daughter the greatest amount of the emotion, and devastation, lies with them in the film. The two fine performances by each excels The Descedants; it is not only a film about a family in crisis but an introspective piece on how different people manage hurt, pain, remorse, and regret individually.
The Descendants begins 23 days after Matt's wife has been in a speed boat accident and lays in a coma unresponsive. He refers to himself as the back-up parent, and has little to no idea what he is supposed to do with his young daughter Scottie. Matt's wife took care of the home, and the children, while he worked as a lawyer--at the time of his wife's accident he had not spoken to her in three days. Matt is also dealing with greater family drama. He manages his family's estate trust, one that was started many years ago as they are descendants of a Hawaiian princess who married a Haole. In a week he and his cousin's will vote on what company they sell an untouched piece of land in Kauai to for development. The decision weighs heavy on Matt's head as it is a special place for his family, as well as for Hawaii itself, being one of the few untouched pieces of land left on the islands. The Descendants follows Matt as he manages his daughters, and his work, while information is divulged that conflicts with what Matt knew of his wife, and what he has ignored for so very long about his relationships. Truth about infidelity will come to light, leading him to the man's doorstep; realizations that he has been an absent father and husband ring true; and in a greater sense The Descendants is about how everyone, regardless of their connection to a certain part of the story, deals with the twists and turns, the emotional ups and down, life creates without warning.
Alexander Payne is well-versed in writing character-focused films, it is essentially what he does as a screenwriter, his hand at directing may always remain prey to the "20-minutes too long" club, but as with fellow members such as The Coen Brothers, it is easily overlooked. The Descendants's is full of natural and honest performances and a script that leaves nothing to chance on what reaction the viewer will exhibit. The film stays with you, it challenges you to examine your own relationships, the good and the bad. The Descendants is a movie for people who truly love great dramatic movies--award worthy movies.
George Clooney has become synonymous with a being movie star. Enamored for his strikingly handsome face and all around likable demeanor, he is one of the few real movie stars that exist in Hollywood today. His sexiest man alive days have kept him making movies of all different types, from his own directing/writing/acting endeavors like this year's The Ides of March, to comedy in Ocean's Eleven, and bridging all other genres with such films as One Fine Day, Solaris, and The Perfect Storm. George Clooney is a fine actor, and a great movie star. His acting has never much been praised greatly in his career, nor chastised. With Alexander Payne's The Descendants he moves away from his movie star typecasting to deliver a performance that transcends "George Clooney"; it is quite simply an amazing actor's performance.
Clooney's character opens the film with a voiceover that immediately sets the tone for what is to come, based on the dialogue as well as the delivery given by Clooney as Matt King. He states that Hawaii is no paradise for those who live here, and given the recents events in his life "Hawaii can go f-ck itself." Very strong words to begin a film with, and the dark humor attached to them will live-on throughout The Descendants. Matt King is a man in crisis, both professionally and personally. Clooney has to balance Matt being a father to his two daughters with whom he has no idea what to do with, dealing with his wife's comatose state and the shocking news of an affair she was having, plus the decision to sell a large piece of land in his family's trust on the island of Kaiui to one of two developers. The stress of it all shows clearly on Matt's face; the tired, worn out, mentally exhausted weariness comes across effortlessly for Clooney in the role, something an actor can only do because he is indeed an excellent actor.
The constant use of voiceover helps as well, keeping the thoughts and emotions of Matt out in the open for the viewer at all times. The changes in his mood come through in the voiceover, while the viewer learns Matt's thoughts, the real thoughts he has that he cannot share with anyone else, and it makes the character stronger and not always very likable. Matt experiences a variety of emotions and reactions as more and more conflict is created in his life or diminished. Having a place inside of his head helps immensely to counteract the face he must keep for the sake of his daughter's, and family. Matt King has never been the perfect husband or father. It is now his time to try and change all of that to the best of his ability. His abilities do not always yield positive results, but they do yield plenty of humorous ones and deeply sentimental emotional moments. Clooney makes the best use of the voiceover, as well interactions with people, by using the varying tempos of his voice to display emotion. Matt King may be smiling, or greeting someone kindly, but his voice says the opposite of his demeanor. One specific scene that shines amongst the rest takes place in the hospital; Matt has just learned he will have to remove his wife from life support. He walks into her room defeated, only to have her two closest friends in there talking to her and applying lip gloss to her lifeless face. They ask how she is improving, and he says she is doing well. The lie is told without faltering, and they believe him. Matt's face tells the truth, the devastating news getting the better of his appearance, his eyes on the verge of tears.
There is one supporting role in The Descendants that assists with Clooney's excellent portrayal of Matt King but also stands firmly on its own as a stand-out. Shailene Woodley, best known for her role on T.V.'s "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" plays Matt's oldest teenage daughter Alexandra. Having been sent away to a private boarding school on the Big Island because of some previous problems at home Alexandra is what may be termed the "difficult daughter." The news of her mother's accident appears to have had little effect on her when Matt brings her home to help with her little sister Scottie (Amara Miller). When she is faced with the news that her mother will not be coming out of the coma Woodley is a marvel with the emotional depth the role commands of her at all times. Alexandra has a strong spirit, and does not display vulnerability; her constant cussing and brashness say a great deal about her insecurities even with the tough exterior. Watching Alexandra and Matt converse together, deal with the pain and frustration of their situation as a broken family, and finally come to terms with the unavoidable future the death of their wife and mother, respectively, means for them is absolutely the strong point in The Descendants. Without the outstanding performance by Shailene Woodley it is impossible to fathom The Descendants being as strong a film as it is, or as affecting.
George Clooney may continue to be a movie star in the eyes of millions. In The Descendants he strips all of the facade away to deliver a raw performance that has the viewer transfixed not on his good looks but the character he creates through his talent, Matt King. The Descendants is George Clooney's movie, as told with the screenwriting talent of Alexander Payne. The two combined contribute to a performance worthy of accolade and a movie destined to be remembered as one of the great character pieces.
November 18, 2011