Written PostJosh Reviews The Descendants

Josh Reviews The Descendants

Last week I saw The Muppets and then The Descendants, in what has to be one of the weirdest double-features ever.  I was really excited about The Muppets, and while I enjoyed that film (read my review here) I was surprised to end the evening having far preferred The Descendants!

The whole world seems to have gone ga-ga over Sideways, Alexander Payne’s last film (which was released all the way back in 2004, wow).  I really enjoyed that film, and it deserves credit for showing the whole world how great Paul Giamatti is, but I’m going to say that I found The Descendants to be a stronger film over-all.

George Clooney plays Matt King, a well-off real-estate lawyer living in Hawaii.  He describes himself at the start of the film as “the back-up parent,” but he’s forced out of that comfortable-to-him role when his wife falls into an irreversible coma following a boating accident.  Matt suddenly finds himself the primary care-giver for his two daughters, the teen-aged Alex (Shailene Woodley) and the ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller).  In the process of traveling around the Hawaiian islands to tell friends and family about his wife’s condition, things become even more complicated when Alex reveals to Matt a secret about his wife (her mom) which all the trailers for the film spoiled but which I’ll avoid revealing here.

The above paragraph isn’t really a description of the plot of the film.  Well, it sort of is.  But it’s more like the framework around and within which the events of the film — mostly a series of moments in the lives of this threesome — transpire.  Not a whole heck of a lot happens in The Descendants, and that’s part of the film’s charm.  Things seem to unfold at a slightly laid-back, Hawaiian pace.  There is some learning and some growing, but I felt the film stayed pretty far away from schmaltz, and the character arcs felt earned, rather than just being driven by what Hollywood Screenwriting 101 might think is necessary.

OK, maybe I’m overstating things to say that not a whole heck of a lot happens in The Descendants. It’s interesting to compare this film to Like Crazy, which I reviewed last week.  Now THERE’S a film where not a whole heck of a lot happens!  Compared to Like Crazy, a movie that strove for often-times painful naturalism, The Descendants is incredibly dense with plot.  And I will admit that there is quite a lot of drama that befalls George Clooney’s character in the week-or-so depicted in the film, perhaps more than would realistically befall you or me, even in one of our most tumultuous weeks.  But somehow it all works, and I credit Alexander Payne’s sharp writing and direction (and I’ll note here that two other writers are also credited for the screenplay: Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) for holding everything together.

There is a lot of sadness in The Descendants. Matt and his family have to wrestle with some very heavy, life-altering events.  But I never found the film to be depressing.  Right from the somewhat jovial choice of music over the opening credits, Mr. Payne manages to give the film a light, almost whimsical at times tone.  It really worked for me.  There is some humor to be found, though this is by no means a comedy.  The actors bring just enough quirk to their performance to keep some lightness in the story, without veering too far from the dramatic territory the film’s narrative covers.

I commented just a few weeks ago in my review of The Ides of March that George Clooney is a far better actor than he needs to be, what with his movie-star looks, and that same comment applies here.  The two kids are very strong as well, both holding their own with Mr. Clooney.  Shailene Woodley has been getting the bulk of the praise, in the press, for her work in this film, and I very much agree with that assessment.  There are a number of tough dramatic scenes that Ms. Woodley is called upon to pull off, often with the camera just inches away from her face, and I found her performance to be very convincing and empathetic.  Amara Miller plays more of the comic relief role, but still she always felt like a real kid to me, not just a comedy device or a fake actory-performance.

I’ve never seen Nick Krause before, but he’s fun as the film’s real comic-relief device, Sid, Alex’s somewhat clueless friend who tags along with the family for much of the film’s run-time.  The great Robert Forster turns in a small but terrific performance — the man still absolutely controls the screen.  I was also tickled to see Judy Greer (so memorable from Arrested Development, and boy I hope she returns for the new run of episodes/movie if any of that actually materializes) pop up towards the end of the film.  And I could hardly believe there was Beau Bridges as Cousin Hugh, also knocking-’em-dead in a few choice scenes.

I noted above that the film takes place in Hawaii, and I enjoyed how strongly the Hawaiian setting colored the film, and not just because of the land-deal subplot that shifts into central focus in the film’s second-half.  Speaking of which, at first I found that story-line to be a bit of a distraction, frankly, from what I felt was the more interesting character stuff going on.  But I found myself drawn into the issues that storyline forces Matt to face: his (and our) responsibility to the land on which he lives, and the people who came before him, and those who will come after.  By the film’s end, I felt it’s title was well-earned.

We’re entering the time of year in which a lot of Oscar-bait films begin filling our multiplexes, many of which I find to be completely insufferable.  Rest assured, The Descendants is not one of those.  Give it a watch and see what you think.