The Descendants

18 Dec

Title: The Descendants
Year: 2011
Director: Alexander Payne
Writers: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Judy Greer, Beau Bridges, Nick Krause, Matthew Lillard, Robert Forster,
MPAA Rating: R, language including some sexual references
Runtime: 115 min
IMDb Rating: 8.0
Rotten Tomatoes: 89%
Metacritic: 84


The Descendants by now is considered one of the frontrunners, alongside The Artist, War Horse and Hugo, to take the free-for-all that’s becoming the Best Picture Oscar race. So of course my expectations were insanely high for this one, but those expectations were grounded not on the huge buzz or the critics awards or anything, but on the name of Alexander Payne alone. The man is one of the greatest living American directors, one of the few guys who doesn’t have a single bad film to his name (he’s credited as the writer of a very early draft of the very mediocre I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, but his version was way different than the stuff we ultimately got), having directed Citizen Ruth (a very solid debut) and then going on to direct three really stunning pieces of film: Election, About Schmidt and, of course, Sideways. That last film about the week-long wine-tasting trip to Santa Barbara taken by Miles and Jack earned him an Oscar for his screenplay, and left us yearning for the new film by this man. And yes, it was a really long, seven-year waiting process, but by the time you get to watch The Descendants you’ll realize just how worthy this film was of such a wait.

This film is truly spectacular, I still think it’s a notch below Drive for my top spot of the year so far, but still, this is a masterful film that only someone like Alexander Payne could have delivered. How the director captures the essence of life, with all its messiness and unpredictability, is really amazing, everything is just incredibly well done in this film, and the cast, led by George Clooney’s finest performance of his career, is pure magic, making this story both funny and beautifully moving. I honestly loved every single minute of this film, and if it were to eventually win Best Picture I would certainly be very happy for it, this is the stuff Best Pictures should be made of, a really brilliant story, masterful direction, spectacular performances around the board anchored by one from one Hollywood’s megastars at his most stunningly vulnerable, every single ingredient is there, and the end result is just as perfect as you might expect.

The thing about The Descendants, and the thing about Mr. Payne, is that much like his other films, they kind of go by their own set of rules, by which I mean they start to elicit some emotions from you that are really surprising, this film is at times sad, at times funny, at times funny and sad at the same time, and you can’t always pinpoint exactly how it is all of those things, but when you have such an amazing team leading you through the story you can safely let yourself go and just immerse yourself in the film. That’s what Mr. Payne specializes in, that kind of brilliantly humane kind of satire, both mocking and touching, a balance you don’t always know how he achieves so perfectly, and as the film keeps you guessing about where it’ll go next the moments of emotional sincerity it provides will really get to you. This kind of balance between the tragic and the funny is something only a director as talented as Alexander Payne can accomplish, and one that he could only accomplish with an actor as great as Mr. Clooney.

Because trust me, the performance Mr. Clooney gives in this film is really something else, the best I’ve seen from a leading actor this year. And what’s most amazing is that he just seems to be getting better with age, I thought he couldn’t get better than what he showed in Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air (which was my favorite film of 2009) he’s even more emotionally vulnerable here, having some moments in this film that will get to you like crazy. I don’t care how great Jean Dujardin is (I’ve still to see The Artist, though) but I think the Best Actor trophy must surely be Mr. Clooney’s to lose, how he exposes himself is just incredible to watch.

The film is set in Hawaii, and the location plays a role in this film, as Matt King, the character Mr. Clooney is in charge of playing, is a descendant of one of Hawaii’s first land-owning white families, and he must make a decision of whether to open up a virgin forest in Kauai for tourist and condo development. However, that’s not the toughest of the decisions he must face, as the rest of the King family urges him to close the deal that would make them really rich, his wife falls into a coma, and Matt must deal with his children, the teenager Alexandra (played insanely well by first-timer Shailene Woodley) and the younger Scottie. So yes, it’s getting real complicated real fast for Matt, as he must learn to be a single father, cope with the revelation that his comatose wife was having an affair, and having his own family pushing him like crazy in order to close the deal on a land his children don’t want him to get rid off.

In that sense, The Descendants is a much more sensitive and sentimental film than Sideways or Election were, because it deals with family, and the pressures the very people you’re supposed to rely on can exert on you. That’s what The Descendants looks upon with such unfaltering emotional honesty, the core of families, and how they can destroy themselves from within while at the same time looking from comfort in that very same place. And what Mr. Payne is so great at is that he always brings forth a really developed slate of supporting characters, he spends his time fleshing them out, so that we feel the pressures they bring with them. It helps that the characters are played by such great actors, like I said there’s the young Ms. Woodley as Matt’s teenage daughter; there’s also Beau Bridges as Matt’s cousin who wants him to sell the land right away; Matthew Lillard as Brian, the man Matt’s wife was having and affair with; and there’s Julie, Brian’s wife, who’s played extremely well by Judy Greer, an actress who I love and who really owns the screen in the time he gets here, she’s amazing.

What’s great is that none of these characters even once has a stereotypical moment, the screenplay, written by Mr. Payne alongside Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (the guy who plays Dean Pelton in Community, believe it or not), is careful to treat these characters like real humans. For example, just when you think Brian is going to be painted as a home-wrecker, his conversation with Matt steers the story another way. Stuff like that happens a lot in The Descendants, Mr. Payne doesn’t assign blame for anything to any one person, blame is all around, we’re all a fucking mess, essentially, and he’s right, as usual. That’s the kind of movie The Descendants is, right and wrong aren’t compartmentalized neatly like in your usual movie, everything’s much more complex and everything’s kind of tied to each other.

Ultimately, the thing that makes The Descendants such a masterful film is that we care. We care about Matt, we care about these characters a lot, and believe it or not that’s really rare in movies, the fact that we want to see what happens next because we’re really interested in what that will mean to the characters, that’s what Mr. Payne does so well, and it’s a damn pleasure to have him back at it. It’s obviously hard for actors to play such human characters, but Mr. Clooney is a really intelligent kind of performer, we believe him as Matt King and we share his thoughts and worries, and Mr. Payne is great at making George Clooney seem like a regular guy. And Shailene Woodley is just fireworks working next to him, matching him at every turn, a really breakthrough performance from her for which she should get some deserved awards buzz of her own.

The Descendants is a welcome return from Mr. Payne in which he displays his usual light touch and great sense of pacing, a film full of warmth and grace to balance out the grief and pain, and in which every single character, even if they’re on screen for just one scene, leaves a memorable impression. Everything about this movie works, even the flaws it has work, because this is arguably a film about flaws, and much like in real life its the flaws that make for something to feel real, this is a film that celebrates those imperfections we all have, and it does so in a rather perfect way. I hope we don’t have to wait another seven years for Alexander Payne to direct a new film, but if that film will be anything like The Descendants, then so be it.

Grade: A+


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