Saturday, April 7, 2012

100 Movies - No. 98: The Descendants

98. The Descendants (2011)
Comedy, Drama, 115 minutes
Directed by Alexander Payne
Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Nick Krause, Amara Miller and Robert Forster

I wondered whether to include The Descendants in my Top 100 series because I reviewed it a month ago when the Blu-ray was released, but after watching it seven times, it has to be included. It's pushing for a place in my Top 10.

It took me about two minutes to decide that The Descendants was going to be my kind of film. It happened during Clooney's opening voice-over in which he observed that, just because they live in paradise, Hawaiians aren't exempt from the usual problems people face. That statement caught my attention because it's true, but it also alerted me to the possibility that the script would be both truthful and more intelligent than most.

Matt King (Clooney) is the kind of character that I can identify with. He's a lawyer and his job is more important to him than his family. He regularly travels to neighboring islands on business and hasn't had a proper relationship with his wife and two daughters for several years. When his wife has an accident which places her in a coma, Matt's life changes instantly. He has to be a father to his daughters and he's completely unprepared. So many people put their career first and their family relationships suffer as a result.

His younger daughter, Scottie (Miller), is 10 years old. Matt last took care of her when she was three. His other daughter, Alex (Woodley), is 17 and is in a boarding school to help her overcome alcohol and drug problems. When Matt learns that his wife will never wake up, he takes Scottie to collect Alex from the school. Alex is drunk when he turns up and openly defies him early in the film.

Place yourself in Matt's situation for a moment. How would you attempt to console your daughters? What would help you establish some kind of connection with them? If you're all they have left, how will you make them feel as if everything is going to be all right?

Matt is annoyed with Alex because she argued with her mother the last time they spoke, but her reasoning is sound; she found out that her mother was cheating on Matt. Alex insists that her boyfriend, Sid (Krause), stays with her while she is home. Sid appears to be fairly dumb and occasionally stoned. Matt is not happy.

The story really takes off when Matt takes Sid and his daughters to a neighboring island in search of his wife's lover. Another story thread explains that Matt and his many cousins are descended from Hawaiian royalty and own a piece of land worth around $500 million. Matt is the sole trustee and must organize the group of cousins and decide who to sell the land to. A complication emerges later in the story which could have a major impact on his decision, but I won't reveal any more of the film's secrets.

I've watched Clooney develop as an actor over the past few years. He used to be criticized for "always being Clooney", but I think he's proved that there's a lot more to him. His timing is excellent and he always delivers his comedic lines well, but he has to show considerable range as Matt. Many of the scenes require him to show his feelings without the use of words. He goes through a lot of emotions during the film and pulls it off perfectly whether the situations are positive or negative. Notice the look in his eyes when Alex and Sid speak up for him in the hospital room after Elizabeth's father (Forster) accuses him of being a bad husband. Clooney's performance is human, real, touching, emotional and understandable. I thought he should have won the Oscar for his performance in Up in the Air, but this latest oversight is a glaring error.

What I really liked about the film was the character development. We see Matt grow as expected, but I was stunned by the development shown in Alex and Sid. They both have more to them than meets the eye and I ended up liking both characters tremendously.  If Alex were my daughter, I would be proud of how supportive she becomes and would love the way she takes her little sister under her wing.

The conclusions that Matt reaches by the end of the story seem plausible and fit well with his development as a father and as a responsible adult. I might have reached the same conclusions if I were placed in his shoes.

You'll definitely laugh during The Descendants and you may even be moved to tears.

Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash won the Oscar for their adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings' book and it was thoroughly deserved. It's rare to witness a film with such intelligent writing. The characters and situations are always believable. If you were in their position, you might find yourself behaving in the same way.

If you like The Descendants:

Clooney's performance is arguably the best of the career. I always have trouble deciding whether his work in Up in the Air is better. It's a close call and not worth worrying about.

Another good story which includes the theme of learning how to be a father is The Pursuit of Happyness. It's probably the performance of Smith's career thus far.

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  1. George Clooney is excellent in his part as are the two girls. The movie poignantly shows how the family starts pulling together into a semblance of a loving unit. The dialogue is fresh and real, not for the faint of heart or for those who mind cursing. I have not read the book so I can't compare the two but on its own merits, this film is a real winner.

  2. Yeah, I don't think I will ever get tired of it. Clooney is improving.