The Descendants (2011)

10 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Descendants” is the latest from writer-director Alexander Payne. Payne specializes in bizarre comedy (read “Election,” read “Sideways”). How bizarre? Well, bizarre enough to make you question whether it should be labeled as a comedy. I’ve met a lot of people who saw the film and couldn’t decide to label it as a comedy or a drama.

To those people, I say this: Well…yeah, doesn’t that go without saying? It’s a comedy-drama. Why are you looking forward into this? Comedy-dramas do exist, or have you forgotten that? “The Descendants” is a comedy-drama. You laugh, you cry. This genre is not new. You’ve seen plenty of TV shows like this too.

Anyway, “The Descendants” goes through comedy and drama. However, it has a consistent tone, along with some great acting and a well-executed script, which makes for a touching and funny film that takes chances and delivers much more than you’d imagine. It’s strange, mind you, as most Alexander Payne productions are, but it’s also very effective.

The film features one of George Clooney’s best performances as Matt King, a lawyer based in Honolulu, Hawaii, whose life is falling apart as his wife Elizabeth is comatose after a boating accident. It’s his job to keep the family together. He starts by trying to keep his youngest daughter, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), out of trouble in school—she behaves inappropriately with other kids. Matt’s other daughter, 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley, from TV’s “The Secret Life of an American Teenager”), is at a boarding school and as Matt finds out when he comes to take her home, she drinks. Matt has never been close to these girls, as he’s usually labeled as the “back-up parent,” but now he has to be the one to tell them that their mother will never wake up from her coma and it states in her living will that the situation requires removing her from life support.

From here, many complications arise. Matt of course has to tell everyone related or acquainted to Elizabeth that she’ll die soon. His father-in-law (Robert Forster) flat-out tells Matt that he should have been a better husband. Alex and Scottie attempt to cope with the situation. Stuff you’d expect from this type of crisis. But there’s more. Alex’s idiot boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) stays over to help out and constantly says or does the wrong things, while possibly stoned (I’m not sure—there’s a line of dialogue indicating that he smokes pot). And Alex breaks the news to Matt that Elizabeth has been cheating on him!

All this happens while Matt and his cousins—including Hugh, played by Beau Bridges—tries to sell acres of land on the island of Kawai in order to open a new resort. Not a good time for Matt.

So…yeah! The “Terms of Endearment” elements have flown out the window since we discover that the woman on the verge of death has pretty much caused trouble even before the accident. Alex recognizes the guy who was sneaking around with her mother, and decides to help her father find him. He’s a real-estate agent named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard, looking middle-aged) and he’s been cheating on his own wife (Judy Greer) for Matt’s. What Matt is going to say when he finally meets Brian is always in question.

“The Descendants” balances comedy and drama, mostly in an effective way. But it’s not conventional. It deals with the deeper issues realistically. These are realistic people in a realistic crisis that happens to be saddled with all sorts of little twists and turns in the midst of it all. That the film takes place in Hawaii lets the record show that life itself isn’t paradise. Things are just as complicated here as anywhere else. Even the moments that practically force you to weep aren’t conventional either. The dialogue is right, the awkwardness in most scenes is believable, and just about every scene just plays itself out.

George Clooney is very good in this movie—he’s low-key, convincing, and delivers some parts comedy and other parts drama. In that case, he’s equal to the material he’s working with. The young actors are strong, especially Shailene Woodley as the oldest daughter who constantly battles her emotions. Nick Krause as the dumb boyfriend is very funny and actually proves to play a dummy with more dimensions than you might think, as we see in a scene in which Matt and the kid have a little heart-to-heart. He’s not so dumb. Also, Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer do nice work, and Robert Forster is solid in a small but effective role.

“The Descendants” is an odd but wonderful movie. The story had me guessing, I was invested in the characters, there are moments of accurate truth, and it’s probably Alexander Payne’s best work.

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