Director Alexander Payne (“Sideways”) seems to be gearing up for another Oscar with the combination of a brilliant script and bold acting from George Clooney (“Up in the Air”) in his new film “The Descendants.”
Matt King (Clooney) is forced to pull himself away from his job as a lawyer in Honolulu and pay more attention to his family after his wife falls into a coma from a boating accident. Not only is he busy with work, he is also the trustee over several hundred acres of beautiful Hawaiian land, which his family owns and is pressing him to sell for millions of dollars.
As if his wife’s accident isn’t enough stress to deal with, he must re-prioritize caring for his two daughters: one a rambunctious 10-year-old, Scottie (introducing Amara Miller), the other a drug and alcohol addicted teen, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, “The Secret Life of the American Teenager”). But King must also confront a nasty truth about his wife — one that changes everything he thinks about her, himself and his family.
The film’s strength comes from its fluidity of dialogue and character interactions. As King meets with family members to inform them of his wife’s condition, Clooney plays King as if he has known them for years, sparing no heartfelt smile or strong-willed tear.
One standout scene has King telling a relative that his wife is doing well, despite receiving horrible news regarding her condition. He puts on a fake but sincere smile and lies, making the audience aware of King’s emotions battling beneath the surface.
Clooney’s acting is spot on, creating emotion from even the slightest facial movements. Be it with makeup or naturally, Clooney plays an aging King with graying hair and wrinkles that emphasize an overworked and stressed man trying to keep everything together while his whole perception of the world around him falls apart.
Witty, comedic dialogue throughout the movie left the entire audience laughing, with a tone of ease and understanding. Interactions between King and his older daughter Alexandra are some of the funniest as both battle for emotional dominance over the other. The confrontations and casual lines between them never felt out of place or forced for the sake of humor.
Scattered throughout the film are slideshows of King’s ancestors, who left his family the land he is tasked to sell. These scenes often break the emotional tension and bring the audience closer to King, as King himself uses these moments to re-focus his priorities. While these scenes do break the flow of the film’s cinematography, they never feel out of place or unwelcome.
The beautiful shots of Hawaii in “The Descendants” are almost reason enough to pay for a ticket. Progressing from cityscapes of Honolulu, where King spent most of his time before the accident, to the sun-kissed mountains of Kauai, where the family owns land, Payne filmed every shot on location and with a specific mood-setting purpose. Set to traditional Hawaiian music, one could almost feel the warmth of the Hawaiian sun in the theater.
The film’s major flaw comes from its often inconsistent focus on characters. By starting off with strong introductions to main characters — such as showing Alexandra in a drunken state before learning of her mother’s accident — details regarding personalities are later all but forgotten in favor of witty dialogue.
Although interactions between even the most unlikely of characters creates a powerful emotional atmosphere, the actual characters — with the exception of King — sometimes feel left out in later scenes. Other characters, such as random, distant family members King meets throughout Hawaii, seem thrown in without much reason, given a name and brief back story but never heard from again. While this was probably director Payne’s attempt at portraying a natural, surprise meeting between family members, it seems forced and often out of place.
At its heart, “The Descendants” is a tale about coming together as a family. Payne has an excellent ensemble that interacts naturally as a grieving, dysfunctional family reuniting after years of being estranged. Performances by Robert Foster (“Jackie Brown”) and Judy Greer (“Love and Other Drugs”) give the film powerful emotional and comedic interactions that keep the audience’s attention and connects them to the central theme of loss.
“The Descendants” is a laugh-out-loud emotional roller coaster that won’t be easily forgotten, thanks to Clooney’s sure to be Oscar-nominated performance and the ability of other stand-out characters to interact.
4 out of 5 stars