Truth is, I was scared. Petrified, even. George Clooney in a family based comedy as a disconnected parent trying to get back in touch with his two young daughters? And the mom’s in a coma? And it’s rated…wait, it’s rated R? That is something I certainly wasn’t expecting. In fact, that seemed to be Alexander Payne‘s goal in both his writing and direction, because, for both better and worse, The Descendants is likely one of the most unexpected, and unexpectedly good, films of the year.
After Max King’s (George Clooney) wife Elizabeth enters a coma due to a boating accident, King is forced to take up the job of actually being a father and parent to his two daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), something he’s never actually had to do. After rounding up his family and very quickly discovering how messed up they all are, King learns two very tragic pieces of information, one right after the other: first, his wife is terminal with no hope of ever waking up, and second, she was having an affair. It’s a rather forceful combination of events, and from that moment on, King concerns himself with finding his invalid wife’s lover, alongside alerting family and friends to her imminent demise (as she has in her will the clause that states she does not want to be sustained for any significant length of time by a machine). It is a story that both requires and is provided an artful balance of humor and solemnity to keep the story realistic, as well as engaging.
The acting in the film is, on the whole, incredible. The chemistry (and initial lack thereof) between Clooney and Woodley is exquisite, each actor beautifully portraying a character unwilling to let their guards down and open up to one another. They also had a great piece of material, acting-wise, to work with: each character, as they are visiting family and friends, must keep the knowledge of their mother’s dark past hidden while hearing her loved ones laud all her wonderful qualities. In this aspect, Clooney especially shines, his subtlety and dynamic presence enveloping the audience in his mental and emotional struggles. It is truly a moving performance.
The rest of the cast is great, as well, with standout performances coming from Judy Greer (as the adulterer’s wife) and Beau Bridges, playing one of King’s many cousins. The only place where the acting falls short is in Amara Miller‘s corner—this is literally her only role to date, and it shows. One of the reasons I try to avoid family centered movies is that the younger siblings are almost always rather disappointing (Chloe Grace-Moretz is the amazing exception to this rule), and Miller sadly fulfills expectations in that respect.
The story, which interweaves King’s struggles with his family and personal lives with that of his family’s massive tract of
land, which the many cousins of his family want to sell, but over which he is the sole trustee. Watching his demeanor towards his family and the land itself change over the course of the film is incredibly compelling to watch, and Payne
capitalizes on the beauty of the land. The film takes place in Hawaii, and it never truly lets you forget that fact, offering many wide, sweeping vistas of various parts of the beautiful islands throughout the film. They help to lend a serene, wholesome, and contemplative mood to the film, forcing the audience to take a moment to reflect on the scene that just happened, mull over their own feelings, and see where they stand in relation to the story. It’s a very effective, enveloping device, for such views would be available to the characters, and by providing them to the audience, Payne
makes the story that much more emotionally immediate.
That’s not to say the film is not without missteps. The use of language in the film is almost excessive, even from the non-teenage characters, and not in a good, off-balance sort of way; instead, the moments of vile language just seem forced, as though they were shoehorned into the script in order to give it that R rating. The other problem, albeit small, is the 180-degree change of character that is made by Sid (Nick Krause), a friend of Alexandra’s, throughout the course of the film. This laidback surfer-dude starts as a verbally filterless, rude, insensitive prick that morphs into such an astute, worldly young gentleman that it seems almost magical. Among such real characters, the transformation is out of place, and while Krause admittedly maneuvers through it in expert fashion, even he couldn’t get past such awkward character progression. It’s a bad writing error in an otherwise great film, but it’s minor enough to not impact the film too negatively.
The most important aspect of The Descendants is that it could have at any point “descended” into cheese, camp, sappiness, or some awful combination of the three, and it is such a great film because it didn’t. Despite not going for the cheap emotional responses, though, the film still manages to break through societal cynicism and evoke some real and heartbreaking sentiments, which is both surprising and promising. It is certainly one that you should see, plain and simple.
From Alexander Payne, the creator of the Oscar-winning SIDEWAYS, set in Hawaii, THE DESCENDANTS is a sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic journey for Matt King (George Clooney) an indifferent husband and father of two girls, who is forced to re-examine his past and embrace his future when his wife suffers a boating accident off of Waikiki. The event leads to a rapprochement with his young daughters while Matt wrestles with a decision to sell the family’s land handed down from Hawaiian royalty and missionaries.