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The Descendants
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenplay: Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash (based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings)
Stars: George Clooney (Matt King), Shailene Woodley (Alexandra King), Beau Bridges (Cousin Hugh), Robert Forster (Scott Thorson), Judy Greer (Julie Speer), Matthew Lillard (Brian Speer), Nick Krause (Sid), Amara Miller (Scottie King), Mary Birdsong (Kai Mitchell), Rob Huebel (Mark Mitchell), Patricia Hastie (Elizabeth King)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2011
Country: U.S.
The Descendants
The Descendants In The Descendants, Alexander Payne’s first feature film in nearly seven years, George Clooney stars as Matt King, a real-estate lawyer in Hawaii who is faced with two interlocking crises: The first involves his wife, who he learns was cheating on him after a boating accident puts her into an irreparable coma, and the other involves his family’s estate, which encompasses a huge swath of pristine land and is about to be sold to developers at the behest of his numerous cousins, all of whom want a piece of the pie. Like the rattled protagonists of Payne’s previous two films, About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2004), Matt is at a crossroads in his life in which he has to make major decisions that not only determine his future, but also give meaning to what has come before. And, as in those previous films, which starred Jack Nicholson and Paul Giamatti, respectively, Payne displays a knack for both perfect casting and using his lead actor in sometimes unconventional, unexpected ways.

By this time, George Clooney’s screen charisma is an institution unto itself, and it is his lack of reliance on it that makes his performance as Matt so good. Granted, Matt is a fundamentally decent guy with a solid moral compass, but he is also deeply flawed in ways that are immediately recognizable. Those flaws are ameliorated to some extent by his strong sense of self-awareness; he doesn’t kid himself, for example, that he is the “back-up parent, the understudy,” and he knows that he works too much and doesn’t spend enough time at home. Thus, it is not hard to feel for his predicament and root for him to somehow pull together the disparate strings of his increasingly fractured life and find some sense of closure, even if we know it won’t come easy.

Matt has two daughters: 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), who is confused and angry, and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), who lives at a boarding school, has a history of drug use and delinquency, and is essentially a window into what Scottie’s anger and confusion might look like seven years later. But, as with Matt, we sense that both Scottie and Alexandra are decent kids, even if they are a bit mixed up and often lash out in ways that are both hurtful and unproductive (Scottie’s misbehavior at school allows for a great, awkward scene in which Matt must take her to a friend’s house at the behest of that friend’s parent to apologize for saying nasty things about her; the manner in which the friend nonchalantly accepts the apology while the mother insists that it isn’t genuine says plenty about the gulf between childhood and adulthood).

Like Payne’s previous films, The Descendants’ seriocomic story has a loose, naturalistic feel that doesn’t rely on zealous plotting, but rather unfolds in a way that feels a lot like life while still maintaining some sense of structure. Much of the story revolves around Matt’s interactions with Alexandra as he enlists her to help him break the news about his wife’s impending death to their friends and family and also to confront Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), the real estate agent with whom his wife was having an affair. By involving Alexandra, Matt acknowledges her maturity, and by being involved, Alexandra begins to see her father in a new light: Not as a distant enemy to rebel against, but rather as someone who has feelings and foibles with which she can identify. Their relationship is, in many ways, one of the most realistic parent/teenager dynamics we’ve seen on screen in some time, and Clooney and Woodley (who currently stars on the TV show The Secret Life of the American Teenager) play their scenes beautifully. Of course, Matt is also caught up in dealing with the potential sale of his family’s land, which is big news locally and represents an opportunity to either cash in on something that he didn’t earn (which is what his many cousins want) or to protect it in a way that others won’t, thus giving him some stake in the land aside from simply being the descendant who inherited it.

Interestingly, as we look back across Payne’s films, we can see a decided move from the direct social satire of Citizen Ruth (1996) and Election (1999) to films that trade in a more nuanced sense of emotion and humor and whose best moments find some kind of intertwining of comedy and tragedy. The Descendants is filled with such moments, although at times it feels that Payne is working a little too hard to soften the edges with a blunter kind of humor, primarily in the form of Sid (Nick Krause), Alexandra’s best friend who has a way of saying inappropriate things at the wrong time. Yet, even Sid has his moment when he reveals something deep and unexpected, which reminds us that every person has something to offer at some point, an adroit point in a film whose heart is in the kind of forgiveness and understanding that is perfectly imperfect.

Overall Rating: (3.5)

Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

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