The Descendants


Review by M. Miller Davis

Films about family interaction and the difficulties that lie therein often run the risk of becoming a trite rehashing of overcooked clichés and underwhelming characters. Neither is the case with the Alexander Payne’s ‘The Descendants’.

Matt King (George Clooney) is a workaholic father drawn back into the family fray due to the sudden hospitalization of his wife. Now, dealing with two daughters, a pending land deal that will affect both the financial future of his extended family and the whole of a Hawaiian community and several difficult revelations about his family, he must decide what being a successful man really entails.

As with many of Alexander Payne’s films, the interplay between tragedy and comedy is superb. His directing ability, along with the screenwriters, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, produce characters that evoke both intense empathy and uproarious laughter often within mere moments from one another. Oh, and the actors have a little something to do with the film’s success.

Clooney gives a perfunctorily excellent performance in a role that could have easily veered into melodrama were it in less capable hands. The showing from his two daughters, played by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller was impressive to say the least. Shailene steals the film with her incredible portrayal of the eldest daughter and semi-former wild child, Alex. Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard and Beau Bridges all offer above average performances and newcomer Nick Krause as Alex’s nearly brain-dead friend, Sid, gives one of the more empathetic portrayals in the feature and, while he’s not perfect, he shows glimpses of a tremendously intuitive young actor.

The Hawaiian landscape is featured prominently within the film and provides as much back-story to the personalities of the characters as any other aspect of the film. (I remarked at one point that the island was another character within the film, then promptly threw myself through a plate glass window.) Almost everyone in the story wears bathing suits or free-flowing Tommy Bahama shirts for the duration, despite most being multi-millionaires. This visual juxtaposition offers up a tangible complexity to these characters from the very start. This offers a base from which the audience is able to progress into fairly serious ‘not everything is as it seems’ territory where the filmmakers seem to be so comfortable.

The pacing of the film is inspired, drawing the audience into the prolonged and almost redundant tedium of caring for a severely ill loved one. Despite this seeming monotony, every scene is as necessary as any other, prodding and pressing the characters to expose them as uniquely full and complex individuals. In films today, much is made about the ‘events’ of a story using characters as simple catalysts for action but ‘The Descendants’ truly understands the fulfillment that accompanies good characters and executes that with near-perfection.

Summary: If you are looking for well crafted, well acted, deliberately paced, and impressively funny/emotional film, go check out ‘The Descendants’ when it comes to your town. With its success in a limited release I believe it will be sooner rather than later.

Directed by: Alexander Payne
Release Date: November 16, 2011
Run Time: 115 Minutes
Country: USA
Rated: R
Company: Ad Hominem Enterprises


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