The Descendants


The Descendants

George Clooney may not get the joke but Shailene Woodley does.

(2011) Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Nick Krause, Amara Miller, Mary Birdsong, Rob Huebel, Patricia Hastie, Barbara L. Southern, Celia Kenney, Scott Michael Morgan. Directed by Alexander Payne

 

Most of us aspire to live in paradise. The problem with that is that we still have to live in paradise and living is a messy, complicated business.

Matt King (Clooney) is a wealthy lawyer descended from King Kamehameha I. His family was one of the first non-Hawaiian landowners in the islands, and the family trust, for which Matt is the sole trustee, owns 25,000 acres of virgin land in Kauai. The trust will expire in seven years and the family is eager to sell the land which is worth billions. For some family members who are experiencing financial hardships, the sale of this land will be a windfall that will allow them to live comfortably for the rest of their lives.

However, Matt’s focus is no longer on the sale. His wife Elizabeth (Hastie) has been in a serious boating accident, leaving her in a coma. Matt has always been more married to his work than to his wife; he is the self-described “back-up parent,” leaving Elizabeth to raise his two daughters – 10-year-old Scottie (Miller) and 17-year-old Alex (Woodley). Scottie has taken to bullying, using profanities and flipping her father the bird when she doesn’t get her way.

Alex is also a mess, having quarreled with her mother shortly before leaving for boarding school and taking to using drugs and alcohol to salve her pain. She’s just getting her life back on track when Matt comes to fetch her to let her know the dire news the doctor has just given him; Elizabeth is not responding to treatment and the coma will be permanent. As per her living will, she will be unhooked from her life support and allowed to die with dignity. Matt chooses to keep Scottie in the dark about this for the time being.

Matt also learns unexpectedly that Elizabeth was having an affair at the time of the accident and was thinking about getting a divorce. The object of her affections was a realtor named Brian Speer (Lillard) who is currently on vacation in Kauai. Matt decides to confront Brian and with his daughters in tow, as well as Alex’s not-quite-boyfriend Sid (Krause) along for the ride, Matt goes about the business of getting closure, and allowing family members – such as Elizabeth’s crotchety dad (Forster) the same.

While there are some comedic elements, there is almost always something darker about them. For example, Matt’s awkward flip-flop run, oft-repeated in the trailer, to his neighbor’s house to confront them about what they know about Elizabeth’s affair – it’s certainly silly to watch out of context but when you know what prompted the ungainly sprint it is a different matter entirely. Sid’s near-epic insensitivity also prompts some guilty laughter, not to mention groans of dismay.

This is very much one of Clooney’s outstanding performances, destined to be one of the defining moments of his career I think. He is most certainly the Oscar frontrunner at this point, giving Matt a good deal of humanity yet never letting us forget that this is a man enduring some incredible pain at the moment – not only living with the knowledge that his wife was about to die, but having his world crumble further in that she no longer loved him and wanted another man. There is also unspoken guilt (which I would have loved to hear spoken) that he felt some kind of guilt in driving her to that place. That aspect of his pain is never explored and I think it might have added something had it been.

Woodley also is terrific as the daughter who has her own issues but as time goes by finally begins to understand her dad and even like him a little bit. That’s a big step for Alex, and Woodley gives the character depth. It doesn’t hurt that the character was written with some to begin with, instead of making her a typical Hollywood screen teen who knows better than her parents. Alex certainly doesn’t; she’s more like the teenagers I met than the ones I’ve seen onscreen.

Forster and Greer, both veteran character actors, have also elicited some supporting actor/actress Oscar buzz; Forster for the dad who is crusty and curmudgeonly, but at the center is deeply wounded and in despair that he is going to outlive his daughter. Greer has a very emotionally complex role that leads to an amazing scene with Clooney in Elizabeth’s hospital room near the end of the movie. It’s devastating and maybe the best single scene you’ll see in a movie this year.

I can’t imagine going through what Matt King goes through here. To be in a situation where one must not only mourn for someone he loves, but to feel acute betrayal as well at the same time – how horrible is that? I loved where the movie took us, and appreciated the journey that got us there. Some are going to look at this from the trailers as a comedy along the lines of the Coen Brothers movies, but this is definitely far from a feel-good kind of film. It has its quirks, but at the end of the day it is a very human film which is going to be making quite a few appearances on Academy ballots when all is said and done.

REASONS TO GO: Oscar-worthy performance by Clooney. A very moving and painful journey.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too painful and intense for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of swearing and some sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Woodley is best known for the TV show “The Secret Life of an American Teenager.” This is her first big screen role.

HOME OR THEATER: Although most of the film translates well to more intimate screens, the Hawaiian vistas are another matter and besides, it deserves some box office support.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: The Infidel

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