THE DESCENDANTS


 Greetings again from the darkness. Ahh … finally! I was beginning to wonder if 2011 was going to produce a film that I could whole-heartedly recommend to both cinephiles and casual movie goers. Writer/director Alexander Payne has delivered a gem. And in a giant surprise, it stars George Clooney as a guy going through real life stress, and in his own words, “just trying to keep his head above water“.

Clooney plays Matt King, a lawyer in Hawaii who is also the trustee of a family land trust. Only this is no typical family land trust. It involves thousands of pristine Kauai acreage that has been left untouched for hundreds of years. The endless stream of “cousins” want him to sell to a developer for enough gold to make them all filthy rich. The locals don’t want him to sell as they believe in the spiritual nature of land, not the green backs of hotels and beachfront homes. And Matt only wishes this was his biggest problem.

 Matt’s fun-loving wife has been injured in a speed boat accident. She is in a coma and the prognosis is not bright. She also has a living will that states no life-support, which is another of the problems Matt must face. Additionally, he must re-connect with his two daughters. See, Matt has been the workaholic attorney that has left the child-rearing to his wife. The two daughters prove to be more than a hand full for the clueless Matt. Scottie (Amana Miller) is the youngest and is struggling with how to react to the state of her mother. Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) is off at boarding school in hopes that she can be tamed from her wild ways. These three must come together and really bond for the first time.

 Those three problems would be enough for any one man to handle, but Matt receives one more bit of information. Turns out his wife was having an affair at the time of her boating accident. So, “having a bad day” seems a little insufficient for Matt’s situation. At this point, the movie takes a sharp left turn turn and almost becomes a mini-road trip movie. Matt, his two daughters and Alexandra’s odd friend Sid (Nick Krause) take on the mission of informing friends and relatives, while also tracking down the “other guy”.

It may seem like I have given away much of the story, but in fact, all of that has been discussed in one of the trailers. What sets this film apart is how this web of stress is handled by Matt and daughters. The story is based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, and the screenplay is co-written by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Watching Matt as he struggles through each decision and situation makes us pull for him, even though he really isn’t anything special … he’s not all that friendly or charming (a rarity for a Clooney character), and certainly not a polished parent.

 Alexander Payne has given us About Schmidt and it’s been 7 years since his last feature, Sideways. Both of those excellent films, and this one, give us a character on the brink … full crisis mode. Some of his characters lash out (Paul Giamatti in Sideways), while others turn to introspection (Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt). Here, Clooney’s character seems to have many decisions to make, but the biggest one is reconnecting with his own soul and being the kind of man he needs to be, for himself, his daughters and the sacred land.

 In addition to Clooney’s fine work, I was very impressed with Shailene Woodley as his oldest daughter.  Veteran Robert Forster turns in a macho role as Clooney’s father-in-law, who harbors some resentment towards him.  Matthew Lilliard and the underrated Judy Greer play the crucial roles of Mr. and Mrs. Brian Speer. Beau Bridges plays the leader of the cousins, which also includes Michael Ontkean (from The Rookies in the 70’s).  You might also recognize surfing legend Laird Hamilton as Troy, the driver of the boat when Clooney’s wife is injured. The other two key characters are the beautiful state of Hawaii and the pitch perfect guitar and island music throughout.

The characters and story are so effective that you will find yourself tearing up in the same scene where you laugh out loud. And that will happen more than once. Few filmmakers can walk the high wire between comedy and drama better than Payne. We connect with these character as they are real people … we KNOW these people. And we know excellent filmmaking when we see it.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy a multi-faceted script with realistic characters and dialogue that sounds like something any of us might actually say OR you would like to see Clooney’s best performance to date (even better than Syriana).

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your comedy to lean towards slapstick and your drama to be a bit less real-world scenario

watch the trailer:

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