Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Descendants

The Descendants (2011)
Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley
When his wife goes into a coma following a boating accident, Matt King (Clooney) has to balance his busy business life with trying to reconnect with his daughters Alexandra (Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller).  This would normally be a stressful time for King, an attorney whose native Hawaiian family is about to sell a large plot of land for millions, an issue that is big news in Hawaii, but further complications pop up as more layers of the lives of he and his family are peeled back. 

The thing I love about Alexander Payne films, and The Descendants is no exception, is that no matter how laid back the tone of the film, the protagonist is always pushed to a breaking point where they end up doing ridiculous things they never imagined they would do, but along the way achieve an amazing level of self-discovery.  Clooney's Matt King is self-assured and comfortable until he really opens his eyes (and has them forced open in some instances) and sees that he never had as much control or happiness as he thought, and this discovery is more perplexing than devastating.  Clooney is a versatile actor who is just at home playing a lovable, flawed guy as he is the dashing leading man.  I think it's more fun to see Clooney in the former roles because he's very natural, plus it's fun to see a guy with matinee idol looks making a boob out of himself once in a while.  

Woodley and Miller are great in the film as the young daughters with issues of their own.  Miller, as younger daughter Scottie, is a tomboy on the verge of puberty and Woodley's Alexandra is a teenager whose rebelliousness has landed her at a strict boarding school away from the family.  Woodley in particular is amazing; from what I can tell, this is one of her first feature films after doing episodic dramas on television, and she has an amazing amount of range and talent.  After King reunites with his daughters, the dynamic is not easy, nor even natural.  Like Sideways and About Schmidt, Payne's previous two films, self-discovery and strengthened relationships occur as a result of a journey.  In The Descendants, there are a couple of journeys, all poignant and educational, but also hilarious many times, thanks to Clooney's expert comedic timing and the addition of Alexandra's boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) who is crude and not very bright, but who has a good heart.  

Though the subject matter was heavy (and what Payne film isn't?) there was still a laid back and breezy feel to The Descendants, partly because of the environment (they were in paradise, after all) but I think the excellent acting and masterful direction and screenplay written by Payne are a large part of The Descendants' success as well.  I've always been a fan of Payne's films because I love their introspection, intelligence and eccentricities, and The Descendants lived up to my expectations after waiting 8 long years for another Payne film (2004's Sideways was a long time ago).  I experienced a great deal of joy watching this film, and afterward described the feeling as "delicious" to my companions.  Though that may sound like a very Holly Golightly thing to say, it really sums up The Descendants quite well, actually.  Delicious and sublime. 

4 out of 5 stars