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Sunday, January 22, 2012



"What is it that makes the women in my life destroy themselves?"
-- Matt King

The Descendants is a 2011 dramatic comedy directed by Alexander Payne that focuses on one man's attempt to bring his life together just as his wife is slowly losing hers. When his wife Elizabeth is seriously injured in a boating accident, lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) finds it his responsibility to inform family and close friends of her imminent death. Always having considered himself to be the "back-up" parent, Matt brings his daughters - Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) - together in order to help him through the process. While all this is happening, Matt is trying to sell a massive portion of land on Kauai that was entrusted to him by his ancestors. To make matters worse, it comes to light that, before the accident, Matt's wife was cheating on him with a local real estate agent named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). In the hopes of coming to terms with all of his emotions, Matt takes his daughters on a statewide search for Speer, all the while handling the constant friction between each member of his family.

When I first heard about this film, I probably thought what a lot of people might have been thinking: it looks to be like a dramatic comedy in the vein of 2002's About Schmidt or 2004's Sideways, both of which Alexander Payne also directed. The film's trailer, which you can view at the end of this post, offers a light-hearted and almost comical preview of the film's events, so it's easy to see where I could've gotten this idea. Suffice it to say, The Descendants actually proves to be a moderately heavy-handed drama, although it does offer a few moments worthy of smiles and chuckles. However, the subject material is just a little too intense to allow this film to be a comedy in any real regard, but to be fair, I think that only aids this film in the long run. Now, after the film snagged two wins at the Golden Globe Awards, there's definitely a lot of buzz around this one.

To start, I'll talk about the film's screenplay. While it offers a rather straight-forward approach, there's something about it that makes it stand above the rest. The characters are fleshed out very well, and there was actually a moment where, with one simple line of dialogue, one of the minor characters was given an entirely new dimension. If a screenplay can do that to a minor character, you can imagine how well-written the leading characters must be. The story itself is one that's going to keep you intrigued and engaged, and while it's not like your typical blockbuster that's going to throw you a slew of twists and turns, there's something rather beautiful about the simplicity of its storytelling. The screenwriters did a fantastic job of adapting their screenplay from Kaui Hart Hemmings's novel of the same name.

I think a lot also has to be said about the acting in the film, which is top-notch, as should be expected. George Clooney is fantastic in the leading role, and he continues a trend that I've noticed in the past few years. Before 2009, most of Clooney's film appearances relied on that oh-so-famous "Clooney swagger," where he always seemed like that larger-than-life individual who could rule the world with just the flick of a wrist. All that started to change in 2009, however, with his Academy Award-nominated performance in Up in the Air. He followed that role with a similar performance in 2010's The American. In both of those films, Clooney allowed a more vulnerable side to come to the forefront, offering a different picture of a man who's bravado has gotten him so far on the Hollywood spectrum. He continues this streak of vulnerability with his performance in The Descendants, and it may just be his best yet. It's soft and (mostly) subtle, and it's truly a treasure to behold.

Luckily, the rest of the cast fills out nicely as well. I can't say enough about the beautiful Shailene Woodley, who holds her own against the acting legend in Clooney. She turns in a fantastic performance as well. Also worth mention is Nick Krause, who offers a lot of the film's more comedic aspects. His character is one who's simply brought along for the ride, but at the end of the day, he actually starts to contribute something to the overall plot. It was a little strange seeing Matthew Lillard in a more dramatic role, even if it's only for a few moments. When I think Matthew Lillard, I think either the 1996 horror-comedy Scream or his role as Shaggy in the live-action Scooby-Doo films, so this was quite a different change of pace. Still, it somehow manages to work. Also be on the lookout for a bit role from Beau Bridges as well as a great, albeit limited, performance from Judy Greer.

Normally with everything I've just said, we could be fairly certain that this film would be worthy of at least a 'B' grade or perhaps even a 'B+.' However, there's something about this film that manages to help put it over the top and onto the next level. It manages its emotions so well, and it's so perfectly intriguing that it's hard not to deny its emotional power. The Descendants simply seems to have that "it" factor going for it, and it's no wonder why it's probably near the top of the Academy's short list when it comes to what films will be nominated for Best Picture this year. Sure, it's meddling with some rather intense subject matter, but the realness of the characters and the story is sure to make a lasting impression on any audience.

Movie Review Summary
Grade: A-
2 Thumbs Up

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