If you look at director-writer Alexander Payne’s previous work, he has few problems looking to the dark side of life to find comedic truth and light.
The Descendants, which stars George Clooney and is based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, follows that similar pattern, but in the process remains wholly original. Set in Hawaii, it’s direct and to the point. The minute Clooney’s character, lawyer Matt King, goes over the litany of arguments about how people think that living in Hawaii is paradise and in conclusion mutters the sentence: “(EFF) paradise” emphatically, you know you’re in a Payne film. There’s little to do, but relax and enjoy as fans did with the Oscar-nominated Sideways, About Schmidt and Election.
But the enjoyment doesn’t always come easily, more because of content than anything else.
King is facing difficult choices in his life, the most important one being trying to reconnect with his daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), no easy task. But their mother’s boating accident is making the process even more difficult. After the mishap she’s left in a vegetative state and Matt has to deal with his daughters, Alexandra being the hellcat and Scottie, the younger of the two who is having a difficult time coping with the situation and the aftermath.
Things grow more complicated when Alexandra reveals to him why she’s had such a tempestuous relationship with her mother in recent months – she caught her cheating. That further sends Matt into a controlled tizzy.
Something else leading him down an angst-filled path – business. Matt’s the sole trustee of his family’s business interests. His family is descended from King Kemehameha and collectively, through a trust, own 25,000 pristine, prime acres of land and many of them are itching to sell it and end their financial problems.
That’s a lot to juggle and Matt’s in the process of trying to understand why his life has taken the turn it has. In that respect, Payne deals with heaping doses of raw emotion.
Matt has to rely on Alexandra, a cheeky young woman with a foul mouth brought to vivid form by Woodley. As a surrogate partner, she proves a perfect comedic foil to Matt’s occasionally emotionally wracked person. The way they handle the issue of his wife’s adultery is hilarious, raw and poignant all at once.
But that can be said about much of The Descendants; Payne possesses a talent for getting to the emotional root of a situation and translating it for mass consumption. While he brokers in emotions normally, this may be his most visual picture to date in that he captures the beauty of Hawaii fantastically.
Do not, however, assume that aspect of the film is forgotten here. Clooney gives his most emotionally resonant performance to date.
Woodley, a sassy sort, proves a revelation alternating between complete obnoxiousness and empathetic. The rest of the supporting cast, which includes Matthew Lillard and Robert Forster, deliver as well.
Expect The Descendants to figure prominently in year-end awards.
Movie: The Descendants
Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Rated: R (for language including sexual references)
Running time: 115 minutes
George’s rating: 4-of-5 stars
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