The Descendants – Review

Film: The Descendants (2011)

Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Robert Forster, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer, Beau Bridges

Directed by: Alexander Payne 

Produced by: Alexander Payne, Jim Burke, Jim Taylor

Written by: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash (based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings)

Running Time: 115 minutes

Rating: R

George Clooney concludes a personally solid 2011 movie year with The Descendants, a sometimes funny and sometimes heart-wrenching film directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt).

Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants deeply explores themes that include familial dysfunction, responsibility, forgiveness, and the roller-coaster journey that is life. Payne and his co-writers turn in a sharp screenplay that, in conjunction with excellent acting and lush cinematography enhanced by a Hawaiian setting, make this film one of the more solid features of 2011.

Clooney plays Matt King, a lawyer living in Hawaii, and the singular trustee of a family trust that owns 25,000 acres of pristine Hawaiian land. Matt and extended family members are preparing to sell the land since the trust will expire in seven years. Meanwhile, Matt and his family are stricken by tragedy when his wife, Elizabeth, is seriously injured in a boating accident, rendering her comatose. Matt soon learns that his wife will never awaken, which means that, according to her will, he will have to disconnect her from life support.

This tragic development is intensified by Matt’s realization that he alone will have to care for his two daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley). Matt, the self-proclaimed “back-up parent,” does not seem ready to take on this task. Scottie is going through growing pains and is showing some alarming behavior at school, while Alex, back from private school in the continental U.S., has had a recent history of drinking problems. As if these issues were not already enough, Alex soon informs Matt that she discovered that Elizabeth had been unfaithful to him prior to her mishap.

Matt wishes to confront Elizabeth’s lover, but is confused about how to handle it. Nevertheless, the family, along with a stoner friend of Alex’s named Sid (Nick Krause), goes on a journey that on the surface appears to be an effort to track down Elizabeth’s lover but deeper down, is also a means of escaping the bleak realities back home. While on this journey, Matt slowly comes to terms with his familial responsibility, spends more time with and learns more about his daughters, and ultimately embraces the things he has. Clooney effectively conveys emotional depth here, showing us more than just the slick and witty persona we often see and allowing the audience to empathize with his character. A Best Actor Oscar nomination for Clooney is very possible.

Clooney, however, had much of the spotlight stolen away by Shailene Woodley. Her character, Alex, despite her relative youth and aforementioned issues, was a sharper, more decisive, and in some odd ways, a wiser character than Matt. Her frequent use of profanity and her association with Sid-the-stoner (although to be fair, he surprisingly shows a little more depth than one could imagine him having) remind us that she is still just a teenager, but Matt talks to her more than anyone else in the film, and watching their father-daughter relationship develop was one of the better aspects of the film.

Alex has had a tumultuous relationship with her mother, largely as a result of her discovery of her mother’s affair. Woodley succeeds extraordinarily in portraying a character who simultaneously feels seething anger and devastating sadness. Two scenes in particular — one where she cries underwater after learning of her mother’s fate and one where she speaks to her unconscious mother in the hospital — are the scenes in which Woodley most strongly expresses this mixture of emotions. Her character was arguably a more interesting and even better-developed one than Clooney’s, and Woodley’s superbly effective portrayal of her will likely earn at least an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Director and co-writer Payne adheres to his calling card and manages to fuse a nice amount of comedy into this dramatic story. While The Descendants was not quite as comedic as Sideways, its moments of humor were effective in both keeping the audience entertained and, interestingly, bringing a level of realness to the ups and downs of family life and life in general. While the film’s frequent use of dark humor does create some awkward situations — which might be off-putting to some — it is obviously an intentional (and successful) method to make these situations more realistic and relatable.

While solid overall, the film does seem to falter slightly in its third act, when it drags just a little bit as it continues through multiple possible ending points. However, by the time the film does end, this trait is somewhat justified as the main storylines are satisfyingly wrapped up. The Descendants is also not the most smooth-flowing story, as the family’s trip in the middle of the film fragments things a bit. Then again, this could just be an illustration of the turbulent nature of life, an overarching theme in the film.

The Descendants, through its sharp writing and fine performances, is an enjoyable and highly relatable story about life’s ups and downs. It has all the elements that will ensure an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and despite its minor pacing flaws, it is one of the more complete and satisfying films of the year, especially from a character-development standpoint.

Tommy D’s Score:





3.5/4 Tommy Ds

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About Tommy D

Clemson and UGA alum with a market research job in LA. And I kind of like movies.

Posted on January 6, 2012, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Clooney and everybody else included is great but it’s really Payne who shines as the writer bringing out some funny humor but not without forgetting about the real rich moments of human drama. Good review Tommy, as usual. A good film but not as great as I was expecting.

  2. Good stuff Tommy, Clooney is having quite a year, isn’t he? I still need to see Ides of March and this though…

  1. Pingback: Tommy D’s Top 10 Films of 2011 « Tommy D Talks Movies

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