AFF Review: The Descendants

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“I’m going to hit you.”

- Scott (Robert Forester)

“This is Hawaii. Some of the most powerful people here look like bums and stuntmen.”

- Matt King (George Clooney)

Alexander Payne is a bit of a badass. Even if you aren’t a huge fan of his work you have to admit that this is a man who can take amazing actors and bring some defining performances out of them.

He did it with Nicholson in “About Schmidt,” he did it with Paul Giamatti in “Sideways,” and now he does it with George Clooney in “The Descendants.” They may not be flashy performances full of “actor-y” moments, but they are solid, real, and believable human beings that he is able to bring to the screen. I know he does it with brilliant actors, but he does it with fairly well known actors and makes you forget what you know, or think you know, about them.

In “The Descendants,” George Clooney plays Matt King, a happily married father of two who makes a good living as a lawyer. Oh, and he is also the head of a trust that owns an enormous amount of completely undeveloped land in Hawaii. We meet him just after his wife falls into a coma after a boating accident, a coma she will never come out of. He is tasked with helping his daughters deal with the impending death of their mother, informing her friends and family that she doesn’t have long to live, oh and deciding the fate of the massive quantity of land that supplies his family with their fortune.

He has a lot on his plate.

Brief aside. Has there ever been an actor with a better “silly serious” face than Clooney? Think about it. He is crazy good looking, but he can do this think where he looks completely concerned, focused, and absolutely ridiculous. It’s kind of cool.

Anyway... back to the review.

First off, this movie gets comic relief right! That is such a rarity these days. You are dealing with some serious, depressing subject matter, but you never feel weighed down by it. Actually, for as serious as the goings on are, this is a hysterically funny movie.

Second, it looks stunning. Hawaii is a ridiculously beautiful place and I am stunned that more movies aren’t filmed there. I mean, yeah there are a lot of movies that are set in Hawaii, but how many of them don’t involve surfing? The quiet, stunning beauty of the movie really provides an amazing backdrop for this story.

The performances are fantastic. Like I said before, Payne is great at getting performances out of actors. To give you an idea, he made Matthew Lillard absolutely compelling as an adult! Honestly, has he played an adult before? I don’t think he has.

Shailene Woodley is incredible as the conflicted, delinquent older daughter. She allows you to feel for this confused young girl who really loves and wants to protect her father, and feels betrayed by here dying mother. Her heartbreak and anger are so real that you can’t help siding with her, even when she’s being a bit of a bitch.

The other performances are outstanding as well. Nick Krause, who plays Sid, is absolutely amazing. This character should have annoyed the absolute hell out of me, but somehow it didn’t. Krause brings a complexity to his character that was refreshing. I'm hoping to see more of this kid in the future. Rob Huebel (of “Children’s Hospital”) steals damned near every scene he’s in, and Robert Forester creates an amazingly sympathetic bastard as Clooney’s grieving father in law.

The direction is… well its Alexander Payne. He has never been afraid to look closely at the relationships that define us (friendships, loves, families) and show characters that really don’t have what they need in them. I mean they have friends, lovers, and families but they always seem to be apart from them. He shows the walls that people build around themselves out of fear and insecurity and how those walls become such a big part of who they are that they aren’t even aware they are behind a wall anymore.

This film is no different. Matt’s life isn’t what he wants it to be. He is distant from his wife, separated from his oldest daughter, completely baffled by his youngest daughter, and a member of a family so big and so peripheral to him that he has a “Cousin six.” This is a man who has everything, a great family and a huge fortune, buy who is so wrapped up in his own head that he can’t for a moment really enjoy it. You get to feel for the man, see him grow, see him find a path and hope that he stays on it. Because in the end, all the future ever gives us is hope.

Payne makes movies about dysfunction, loss, and broken people who have to go somewhere else to reassess their priorities so they can come back home whole. I have been a fan of his since “Election,” and I always think he has done all he can to impress me, I am always wrong. “The Descendants” is a fantastically written, brilliantly directed, flawlessly acted film that is quite possibly Payne’s best. And that is saying quite a lot.



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