Oscar Movie Month: "The Descendants" Review

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After a boating accident puts his wife in a coma, a Hawaiian land baron (played by George Clooney) takes his daughters on a trip from Oahu to Kauai to confront the young real estate broker (Matthew Lillard) who was having an affair with her before her misfortune. Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings.

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Rating: R
Length: 115 minutes
Release Date: December 9, 2011
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Genre: Comedy / Drama

The amazing thing about Hawaii in "The Descendants" is that unlike the sun-drenched paradise backdrop portrayed in many films, it is an integral part of the plot. Like the characters in this complex, enigmatic film, the land itself is gritty, flawed, cloudy and ever-changing.

Though "The Descendants" is billed as a comedy-drama, the humor is dark, cynical and cutting, exposing the dysfunctional nature of the relationships of the characters at the heart of the story. Matt King, played by George Clooney, is a lawyer with a vast extended family that owns a valuable tract of undeveloped land on the island of Kauai. This land, a lovely expanse of green hills and beachfront, has great cultural and personal significance. As the sole trustee, Matt has the final word on whether to go through with the family's decision to sell the land for millions of dollars.

While the deal is being finalized, Matt's wife has a serious boating accident and goes into a coma. All at once, Matt prepares to take his wife off of life support according to her living will, becomes a single parent of his two daughters and discovers that his wife has been having an affair. Overwhelmed by all these equilibrium-shattering events, Matt takes his precocious, foul-mouthed 10 year old daughter, Scottie, his rebellious, substance-abusing 17 year old daughter, Alexandra, and Alexandra's spaced-out boyfriend, Sid, and heads off in search of his wife's lover.

When he finds and confronts the lover, Matt invites the other man to come pay his last respects. The lover confesses that though Matt's wife loved him, he considered the affair merely a fling and does not want to jeopardize his marriage by getting further involved. Matt, his daughters and Sid return to Honolulu. At the hospital, as the family mourns, the lover's wife shows up, declaring to Matt's wife that she forgives her even though she destroyed their family. Later, at the meeting of the extended family at which the papers for the land sale are supposed to be finalized, Matt decides at the last moment not to sell. The last scene of the film shows Matt and his two daughters alone at home, apparently in the process of reconciliation.

The movie's events could have easily descended into melodrama were it not for several cinematic elements that come together perfectly. Adapted from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the screenplay by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash is subtle and straightforward. It goes deep not only into the hearts of the main characters but into the supporting characters as well. Because the viewer is able to understand the background and motivation of each person Matt and his entourage meet on their odyssey, each woven thread of subplot tightens toward the inevitable conclusion.

This is writer and director Alexander Payne's first film in several years. He last received accolades for the offbeat comedy-drama "Sideways" and before that for such distinguished films as "Citizen Ruth," "Election" and "About Schmidt." "The Descendants" is arguably Payne's finest film. In it, he skillfully balances lightheartedness, solemnity, intelligence and emotional trauma into a finely tuned, fully satisfying tour de force. Somehow he manages to make the viewer understand that each character, major or minor, has depth, nuance and complexity.

The acting throughout the film is superlative. This is possibly George Clooney's best performance. He plays this role with great intelligence. His expressions run the gamut of hurt, shock, incredulity, anger and self-questioning doubt. Because it is so easy to vicariously feel what Matt is going through, the viewer is swept along for the ride. Shailene Woodley plays the important role of angry, erudite Alexandra with maturity and authority. Amara Miller is sassy and dynamic as 10 year old Scottie. Even the actors and actresses playing the minor characters bring great finesse to their roles. Nick Krause as the seeming-simpleton boyfriend Sid reveals hidden depth as the story nears its climax. Robert Forster, as the father of Matt's dead wife, displays heartfelt anger and outrage. Beau Bridges, as one of the relatives trying to convince Matt to sell the land, exudes both conviviality and decadence. Judie Greer, as the wife of the exposed philanderer, steals the climactic scene. As an ensemble, the cast works together beautifully to bring this ambiguous yet moralistic tale to life.

When it came out in 2011, "The Descendants" received almost universal praise from both critics and audience. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including best picture, best actor in a leading role, best director, best editing and best screenplay, and it won the award for best screenplay. It also won Golden Globe Awards for best dramatic picture and best actor. It was nominated for many other awards besides and appeared on the best of the year lists of many film critics, newspapers and magazines.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5