Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Descendants Review

When you see the ads for Director Alexander Payne's The Descendants, you would think this movie is more of a comedy than a drama. Well, be prepared for more of a drama with small amounts of comic highlights. Does that mean you should stay away from this film. No. This movie is the "Ordinary People" for this twenty first century decade. And you would be missing one of the best films of the year.

The Descendants starts out by introducing us to Matt King. (George Clooney) He's a lawyer and a lifetime resident of Hawaii. His wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) was involved in a boating accident which has made her comatose. His problem is that he is now forced to raise his two daughters, ten year old Scottie (Amara Miller) and seventeen year old Alexandra. (Shailene Woodley) Raising them is a task that he is not equipped for. Unfortunately, a doctor informs him that Elizabeth will not awake and that she is basically brain dead. Since she had a living will, the hospital will soon stop all life preserving methods.

Complicating all of this is that while Elizabeth lies comatose, are two things. Matt must dispose of acres of land which has been in his family trust. It's probably the first time the rule against perpetuities has been used as a plot device in a movie. The descendants, i.e. all of Matt's cousins eagerly await for the sale since they will make millions. Second, Matt finds out from his estranged daughter, Alexandra, that Elizabeth had been having an affair with a realtor named Brian. (Matthew Lilard)

The screenplay was written by Nat Faxon, Jim Rash and Alexander Payne. It's based on a novel called "The Descendants" by Kaui Hart Hemmings. The screenplay does an excellent job with the dialogue. The characters all say things that sound real. Payne's direction focuses on the emotions in the faces of the characters. He adeptly balances drama one second and comedy the next. Payne also makes Hawaii an integral character in the film.

A movie such as this which is a character study, needs great performances by the actors for it to set sail. And the film has them. Shailene Woodley makes her teenage Alexandra rebellious, grief stricken and later adult strong. Amara Miller doesn't overact and her ten year old Scottie is perfect. Good to see Matthew Lilard as the other man. He's desperate and a bit shallow as Brian. But this film belongs to George Clooney. If you can read a person's emotion by looking at their face without the person saying anything, that's the epitome of fine acting. Every expression on Clooney's face tells a story. Hurt. Confusion. Love. It's a greater performance than what he did in Up In the Air. (2009) George Clooney should get an Oscar nomination for his performance.

The Descendants is a slice of life type of movie. It's the story of a family facing great tragic changes. It's an engrossing and heartfelt story. The grade is A.

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