Reviews for the Easily Distracted:
The Descendants

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Title: The Descendants

Doesn't George Clooney Have An Oscar Already? Nominated five times, won once (Best Supporting Actor for Syriana).

Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: Four Kilauea volcanoes out of five.

Brief Plot Synopsis: A Hawaiian land baron must come to grips with the fact that his wife, on life support after a boating accident, was having an affair.

That's It? Sorry. They can't all be about giant robots or sparkly vampires.

Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: Matt King (Clooney) and his cousins are days away from selling 20,000 acres of their ancestral property to a land developer when he learns his wife Elizabeth is in a coma following a boating accident. Left to take care of his daughters, ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and troublemaking teen Alex (Shailene Woodley), he must also contend with Alex's revelation that Elizabeth was screwing around with a local real estate agent (Matthew Lillard) with connections to the impending land sale.

"Critical" Analysis: Alexander Payne's first movie in seven years (Sideways was his last) touches upon many themes, but is ultimately about the relationships we cultivate throughout our lives, and how easily it can be to skate by with little connection to those we're allegedly "close to."

Matt is, by his own admission, the "back-up parent" to his daughters, spending most of his time dealing with the family real estate deal and his own law firm. When his wife's accident thrusts him into the primary caregiver role, he's ill-equipped for the task. A lesser filmmaker would throw some initial obstacles at him, then make for a clever resolution at the end. Payne is too skilled for that. Nothing about Matt's relationship with his children comes easily (though Scottie is less a handful than Alex), and though there's some sense of resolution closure, we ultimately know we're looking at a snapshot of what will be a long and complicated process.

The Descendants unfolds slowly, almost languorously, an easy word to use for a movie set in Hawaii. Indeed, the setting plays as important a role as the plot itself. Maybe more so. The idea of "trouble in paradise" is hoary enough to be cliché at this point, yet few movies have utilized the islands' natural beauty and remoteness to get their part across so well.

And as in Sideways and About Schmidt, Payne's humor is subtle and darkly tinged. Matt's predicament would be enough to cause anyone consternation, at the least, and Clooney's portrayal captures this rising desperation while at the same time demonstrating what we suspected all along: that a guy with his own law firm who's also been named the trustee for his family's land holdings probably has more on the ball than the rest of his Aloha shirt-sporting brethren.

Payne has once again assembled a stellar cast. At this point in Clooney's career, he could easily coast by on stereotypical leading man bilge, but he continues to challenge himself (he wanted the role of Jack in Sideways, but Payne deemed him "too famous"). Robert Forster puts in a fine turn as Matt's father-in-law, and Woodley is a talent to watch as Alex, a character with much more depth than initially apparent.

The casting of Lillard is also an interesting (and surprising) choice, almost as if Payne selected him specifically because he knew the audience would be unsympathetic to him. It works, and Lillard is much better than he has any right to be.

The Descendants is a wonderful film, full of nuance and beleaguered humanity. It's also on the short list for best movie of the year.

The Descendants is in theaters today. Don't just seek it out because Breaking Dawn was sold out.


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1 comments
Dan O'Neill
Dan O'Neill

Clooney and everybody else included is great but it’s really Payne who shines as the writer bringing out some funny humor but not without forgetting about the real rich moments of human drama. Good review. Check out mine when you get the chance.

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