Grade: A+ (5/5 stars)
“The Descendants” is Alexander Payne’s first film since the marvelous 2004 comedy-drama “Sideways.” And wow, what a comeback! Payne gives us a magnificently filmed piece set on the lovely island of Hawaii. With a fetching cast and a magnetic script, co-written by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, “The Descendants” rightfully claims a spot on the list of the best films of the year.
Payne’s decision to set this enriching, funny and moving tale on Hawaii (Oahu and Kauai) about a man who is almost at a complete loss is symbolic. He shows how a beautiful setting can be an undertone for the harsh reality of the real world and how Hawaii is not always the land of dreams when real life hits you in the face.
Matt King (George Clooney) has two very tough decisions to make. One involves selling a piece of real estate that’s been in his family for many generations. Some want him to keep it. Others, meaning several of his cousins (one being an outstanding Beau Bridges), want him to sell it so they can get a good lump sum out of it.
The other problem is more personal. His wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), was in a severe boating accident and lies in a coma with very little possibility of waking up. The thought of losing his wife is tough. What’s just as tough is dealing with their two daughters. They are the bratty 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and reckless 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), who’s been shipped to boarding school after boys, booze and drugs overtook her life back home. Oh, and Alex also just found out that Elizabeth was cheating on him. The guy just can’t seem to get a break, huh?
Based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, “The Descendants” is the most human comedy-drama to be released this year. Of course, what else would you expect from Payne? He never just gives you the notes of a story, its characters and its themes without some strong development. He digs deep and pulls out all the right details at all the right moments.
The cast is just perfect. Clooney gives one of the most emotionally driven and raw performances of his career as the workaholic Matt. Opposite of him are two great young actresses. Miller is just dynamite and sassy as the younger daughter. Woodley, in her first performance in a feature-length film, is shockingly good and full of vigor. Try to fight back tears when you see her crying underwater. It’s a beautiful scene.
Even the supporting cast is great here. Matthew Lillard turns in what is probably his first miraculous performance after a string of dead end films. He plays Brian Speer, the real estate hotshot Matt’s wife slept with. The exchange between Matt and Brian when they finally meet is simply wonderful. Judy Greer’s few scenes as Brian’s wife are fascinating. I won’t ruin her moments for you.
Payne is sharp when it comes to his directing and his writing. The humor is unexpected and outrageously funny. The drama is powerful and never overly sentimental. “The Descendants” is a grand return for a grand director.
Now playing in select cities. It should open in the Chico/Butte County area soon.
David also writes as the National Boardwalk Empire Examiner and for We Got This Covered.
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