The Descendants (2011)

by Steve Habrat

If the drama Blue Valentine could receive an R-rating partly for its graphic depiction of a marriage crumbling apart, then the R-rating in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants must have been for strong language and the graphic depiction of a midlife crisis. Payne really lays it on thick here but he softens the impact by mixing some comedy in with all the severe beatings that the Honolulu-based lawyer Matt King endures over the course of the film. The Descendants turns out to be a perfectly balanced dose of reality, never flinching to show how life can really deliver a blow but also going as far to show how we desperately try to keep our composure in front of others, even when it is the most difficult thing in the world to do. Payne, who also made About Schmidt and Sideways, makes the best film of his career (I’m still not sold on Sideways. I’m sorry.) and pushes George Clooney to give the performance of his career. And to think that I thought Clooney couldn’t get any better than his performance in Up in the Air!

The Descendants follows Matt King (Played by Clooney), a workaholic lawyer living in Hawaii who admits to being a second string parent and extremely tight with his money. He insists that even though he lives in paradise, he doesn’t sit around drinking Mai Tais all day. Matt also happens to be the sole trustee of a family trust that inherits 25,000 acres of lush land on the island of Kaua’i. The trust is set to expire and Matt, along with a good majority of his cousins, is looking to sell the land. Just as Matt is finalizing the deal to sell, his wife Elizabeth is involved in a boating accident that leaves her comatose. This sticks Matt with raising his 10-year-old daughter Scottie (Played by Amara Miller) and his troublemaking 17-year-old daughter Alex (Played by Shailene Woodley). Matt sticks by his wife’s bedside up until it is revealed to him that Elizabeth was cheating on him and on the verge of asking him for a divorce. After learning of the affair and his wife’s condition worsening, Matt sets off to find out who the man is that Elizabeth was seeing.

For those who teeter on extremely sensitive, The Descendants will be hell to watch. There are moments in the film where the emotional beatings are so severe that I wanted to crawl under my seat and not even watch them. We feel for Matt, whose heart hangs heavy and is caught in a situation no one should have to endure. He swings from grieving spouse to bitter and weary. Payne pads the blows by sprinkling some wonderfully staged comedic moments throughout the course of the film. His inclusion of Alex’s friend Sid (Played by Nick Krause) was a stroke of genius. Sid delivers some dazed stoner humor at just the right moment but even his character has cracks in his heart. Matt’s interactions with his berating father-in-law will have you egging Matt on to give him the verbal one-two. With all these cringe inducing exchanges and wrecking ball moments, Payne shows us just how cruel life can be.

Everything you’ve heard about the performances in The Descendants is true. Clooney, looking fatigued and weather worn, desperately clings to his sanity. His perilous attempts to keep his daughters in line warrant a pat on the back even if their defiance is justifiable. He simply hasn’t been the greatest father and he is well aware of it. He’s oblivious yet brave, keeping calm when more of his world crumbles down on him. He quietly deals, allowing his tears to flow in private and not in front of his daughters. Clooney also shows that he can be really, really funny. Watching him run through his neighborhood in boat shoes is classic as is his spying techniques. Shailene Woodley’s Alex is brimming with anger toward her cheating mother. She is the one that fills Matt in on what has been going on behind his back. Alex can be just as merciless as life is to Matt, but when her character comes around, she really aids Matt in coping. Matthew Lillard also shows up as Elizabeth’s squeeze Brian Speer, who has some secrets of his own when it comes to the affair. It’s nice to see Lillard tackling some serious roles and showing the world he is capable of more than just Scooby Doo. Beau Bridges also shows up in a nice cameo as one of Matt’s laid back and distantly understanding cousins.

The Descendants doesn’t waste any opportunity to show off the splendid landscape of Hawaii while setting it to comforting music. It’s an exotic film woven with vivid and authentic turmoil. I sometimes felt that I was tagging along with Matt in his quest to find closure and mend his wounds.  The film delicately allows us to fall in love with the characters and in its final act, leaves the comedy behind and embraces full on dramatics. During the last act, Clooney turns his performance up to the highest level and unleashes a five-minute breakdown that will have you fighting back tears. Even though he is a fictional character, Payne, along with fellow screenplay writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, force us to admire his equanimity making it is all the more heartbreaking when he collapses. Payne also cracks the door to show us how we personally and privately deal with traumatic moments around us, which will really send needles through your heart. Draining on the emotions, The Descendants is ultimately about sticking together and having a shoulder to lean on in the worst of times.

Grade: A

Posted on February 3, 2012, in REViEW and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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