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Movie Review: The Descendants (R)

descendantsBy Jared Peterson

In The Descendants, George Clooney—tanned, rested and ready for Oscar Number Two—plays Matt King, a low-key man edging toward the precipice of life-altering changes.

Living somewhat modestly in Hawaii, Matt is in fact descended from the islands’ highest and mightiest; his distant forebears included the last of the Hawaiian royal family and a wealthy haole (a not entirely complimentary term for the white colonists and their descendants). Matt is nearly done brokering a deal that will slice up and sell his birthright—the last pristine parcels of land on the islands—when tragedy strikes. After a boating accident, his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) lies in an irreversible coma. Now Matt, the self-professed “back-up parent”, is forced to usher their two troubled daughters Alex (Shailene Woodley of “The Secret Life of the American Teenager”) and Scottie (sweet, smart newcomer Amara Miller) through the process of saying goodbye. Matt’s own grief is compounded and complicated by the revelation that his wife was cheating on him. Egged on by the impulsive older daughter Alex, he decides to track down his wife’s former lover, a risky move that has unforeseen yet predictably messy consequences.


Consequences are the key focus of The Descendants. Based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the film’s many elements serve a single powerful question: What will we pass on to the people who come after us? The film was cowritten by its director, Alexander Payne, with actors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who voice characters on the hilarious animated FOX show “Allen Gregory”, though you may know Rash as The Dean on “Community”, the brilliant NBC comedy being persecuted for its own genius by a network that seems to have its head up it’s… I’m sorry, where were we?). Payne is well respected for his deft touch with comedic drama—or is it dramatic comedy?—but this film doesn’t wear that mantle as well or as lightly as his best effort, Sideways, did. Like many films adapted from novels, The Descendants is densely populated and somewhat overnarrated—the tendency is to try to keep too much from the book. But director and writers deserve credit for making every character and nearly every scene relevant to that central conundrum of actions and reaction. Matt must come to grips with the fact that everything he does, large and small—from selling half an island to letting his daughters swear in front of their comatose mother—has effects that will make and remake others long after he is gone.

I’ll admit that I spent the first third or so of the film unsatisfied. But it grew on me, in pretty much direct proportion to the mounting complexities of George Clooney’s performance. Clooney let’s his vulnerability bloom and his age show—his hair is gray and long and we get to see his body in full, spindly old-guy legs and all. (Men in the audience, watching him wince as he runs down a street in sandals, might begin to forgive him for ruining tuxedos for us in Ocean’s Eleven.) Matt’s discomfort as a parent morphs into something like desperation and then a quiet catharsis that many other actors would have overplayed.

The Descendants has been riding a killer wave of Oscar buzz, generated in part by the furious thrashing of the studio media machine in ubiquitous ads and TV spots. The film’s form isn’t perfect, but it stays gracefully above water and brings its message safely back to shore.

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