When looking for a sidekick, you might not think to pick your pseudo-estranged, perpetually-grumpy, alcohol-guzzling teenage daughter, but as The Descendants proves (time and time again), things aren’t always what they seem. Sometimes a little digging under the surface pays off.
One of the front-runners for this year’s Best Picture Oscar, The Descendants is sometimes life-affirming and sometimes heartbreaking, but it’s consistently excellent– a stunning bit of filmmaking from Alexander Payne.
It’s so good, in fact, that you may very well leave the theater frustrated with Payne for not doing stuff like this more often; the fact that he’s only made five films (all of them great) in his 15-year career is almost inexcusable. From Sideways to Election to About Schmidt, Payne has shown he has a real talent for turning the life stories of everyday people into something absolutely riveting.
And he’s never done it better than with The Descendants.
On its surface, it’s the story of Hawaiian Matt King (George Clooney), who’s dealing with the fact that his wife Elizabeth may never wake up from a coma she fell into after a powerboat accident. Together they have two rebellious kids, 17-year-old Alex (Shaelene Woodley) and 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller). Though Matt is their dad, he openly admits that he’s been their back-up parent, and that mom was the real leader of the family.
At the same time, Matt is trying to figure out what to do with thousands of acres of virgin Hawaiian coastline that has been in his family for generations. Developers are calling, and the family trust on the land is expiring soon.
That’s more than enough for most grown men to grapple with, but then Matt gets one more bit of news– turns out his wife has been having an affair.
Just like that, Matt and Alex begin to drop their differences and unite to figure out who the guy is and to track him down to let him know that Elizabeth is in a terminal coma. Who knew that mom’s affair could provide such a strong (albeit non-traditional) family-bonding experience?
Well, apparently Payne did when he chose to adapt the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. The Descendants takes two devastating situations and turns them into an devastatingly good motion picture, free of maudlin, tug-at-your-heartstrings nonsense (I’m looking at you Extremely Loud and Incredbily Close). And each and every time you worry the film may be heading to cliché-ville, it doesn’t– and it remains as real and honest as any movie to hit theaters this year.
Clooney has only gotten better in recent years, from Up In the Air to The American, and now this. His performance in The Descendants is among his best ever (if not the best), full of true emotions, subtlety, and, yes, even a little humor. But the real find here is Shaelene Woodley, whose multi-layered, virtuoso performance should have secured her an Oscar nomination.
The Descendants will make you laugh, make you cry, and make you glad you spent the ten bucks, but most importantly it will make you appreciate the fact that, in a year full of superheroes, robots, and bathroom-humor drivel (Bridemaids excepted), there are still truly excellent films being made by some brilliant people.
Now, if only they’d do it more often. Ahem, Mr. Payne.
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