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Entries in Descendants/The [2011] (1)

Saturday
Dec312011

The Descendants (2011)

Sly and the Family Tree

The Descendants spends so much time thinking about itself that it often forgets to act like a movie. Thank God for that. This is a moving, reflective picture that cares more about hitting emotionally pure notes than story beats; it's anti-Oscar Oscar bait.

George Clooney stars as Matt King, a wealthy attorney living near his estranged wife and daughters in Hawaii. When his better half, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), is knocked into a coma following a boating accident, he must tear himself away from work and finally figure out how to become a dad. His pre-teen daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), is a social misfit; his oldest, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), struggles with drug addiction and a penchant for hooking up with losers.

Matt and Alexandra's relationship is strained almost to the breaking point, and we soon learn that this is mostly due her having kept a big secret from him: up until the crash, Elizabeth had been cheating with a real estate broker named Brian (Matthew Lillard). Further complicating matters is an impending land deal involving the King family selling half a billion dollars of land to one of two resort developers--as trustee of property that dates back centuries, Matt's relationship with his numerous, money-hungry cousins is also on the line.

Much of The Descendants sees Matt clumsily stalking his wife's ex with Scottie, Alexandra, and Alexandra's dim-bulb buddy, Sid (Nick Krause), in tow. He's unclear as to what he'll say, or even why he wants to confront Brian, but the mission gives him forward momentum in a life marked by constant waiting. The pretense he gives Alexandra is that he wants Brian to be able to visit Elizabeth in the hospital before she dies, but one gets the feeling that Matt is more interested in seeing how he does or does not stack up against the man with whom his wife had built an elaborate secret life.

Fortunately, Payne and co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (working from Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel), fill their story with emotional profundity rather than wacky situations. Payne has built a career out of mid-life-crisis road pictures, but The Descendants is even less plot-heavy than Sideways or About Schmidt. In the screenplay's wanderings, we learn so much about the characters that inserting artificial situations and scene resolutions would feel like overkill.

In fact, two of the biggest scenes are cut short. In one, Matt and Alexandra confront Brian and his family; a lesser film would have seen a comically awkward dinner, flying fists, or both. But Payne and company defuse the situation naturally, while not robbing the audience of the satisfaction it craves from the encounter. The other big scene, in which Matt shares his decision about the land with his family, builds to a climax that we never see. The writers get away with this by jumping right into a far more important scene involving Elizabeth, as if to remind the viewer that the land deal is the lesser obstacle of Matt's journey. Given Matt's disposition, we can assume that he's made some kind of peace with whatever happened with his cousins.

The film's last shot of Matt, Scottie, and Alexandra sitting on the couch, watching TV is the perfect capper to one of the story's central themes. Throughout The Descendants, characters discuss or look at pictures of several generations of Kings. Each implies a story that's been sewn into the family legend, even though their ancestors were probably just regular people with oversized problems and annoying relatives, too. The movie closes on a new portrait that only we can see; instead of a freeze-frame, the Kings shift and settle and carry on with their lives. For the first time, they feel like they belong in a family that's lasted for generations.

While I love much of The Descendants, it's plagued by a mediocre opening half-hour. Clooney spends half of it doing voiceover that sounds very novel-y (i.e. so clever that it seems out of place in a movie about a regular guy and his problems); the other half he spends trying to shake his dashing movie-star persona. I understand that movies are often filmed out of sequence, but it really feels like Clooney was working his way towards naturalism during the first thirty minutes. He's to stiff, as if constantly working out in his head, "Now, real people, when they're expressing concern, hold their arms out like THIS, and they...um...slouch one shoulder, kind of like THIS." It's very odd, especially since he melts completely into the Matt character by film's end, latching onto an honesty that brought me to tears.

Similarly, this first half-hour is plagued by a few truly awful actors in minor roles. I won't name names, but you'll be able to spot them instantly. It's as if Payne and the casting director wanted to lend some authentic Hawaiian/surfer culture to their movie by casting genuine locals--which is fine, as long as they're genuine local actors. These look to be folks off the street, giving it their all. There's a reason you don't see new members of your local gym competing in the Olympics; at a certain level, audiences expect at least competency, if not proficiency. This same ill-conceived stunt helped cripple Gran Torino and Up in the Air, too.

Minor quibbles aside, The Descendants is a lovely little film with a terrific cast that deserves all the accolades they're in for. Clooney has never been better. Woodley is leaps and bounds more mature an actress than her work on The Secret Life of the American Teenager implies. And Judy Greer, playing Brian's oblivious wife, is a terrific revelation; she busts free of the rom-com supporting-role mold and upholds the movie's standard of surprising, great performances. Sure, this film is Oscar bait, but it's also very touching, relaxed, and (mostly) free of contrivance.