Movie Review: The Descendants

By Ryan Mazie

November 16, 2011

Also, I really liked The Big Lebowski. Wait, what?

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Hawaii is usually seen in movies as a serene sabbatical that is the source of relaxation. In Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, there isn’t a grass skirt to be seen. Instead, he uses the ideal islands as a backdrop for domestic dysfunction. This isn’t a movie where the characters are seen in a glass house; rather, the layers of the porcelain perfect surface are peeled back to see the uneasy but realistic cracks.

Seven years is too long of a tease to make audiences pine for Alexander Payne’s to return to the director chair. I'm glad to report that The Descendants, his feature film follow-up to the award-winning Sideways (Payne did direct a short segment in 2006’s Paris Je T’Aime), is well worth the wait.

Unlike Payne’s other works where he undercuts his characters with their own unassuming pathetic actions, The Descendants is filled with decent, albeit lost, characters. The sweeter than expected undertones of seeing decent people do decent things makes this Payne’s most endearing and micro-work yet.

As easy going as the shifting waves in the Pacific Ocean, the Hawaiian-set picture revolves around the work-obsessed lawyer and land baron Matt King. After a boating accident leaves his thrill-seeking wife comatose in the hospital, Matt attempts to step up from his “back-up parent” position to take care of his two daughters in their drifting family.

Based off of the same-name novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the screenplay penned by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (the latter two are newbie writers, more known for their sitcom acting work) casts a wide initial net of characters and plotlines. As the nearly two hour film progresses, a movie starts to form, narrowing in on the King family while naturally and skillfully losing the various external noise first introduced.


George Clooney delivers the best performance of his career (he has had quite a last half of the year which he kicked off with The Ides of March) as the clueless but not mindless father. Quickly switching behavior on the dime from anger to faux-happiness in front of his daughters, Clooney’s quick change of range suits Payne’s emotionally caustic sensibilities. As Payne crafts the scenes, you never are sure if the building momentum of the script will result in a laugh or a tear… or sometimes both. While making the audience unaware of what to expect, Payne and Clooney clearly know what direction they are going in and the surprise emotional outcomes keeps the viewer interested, even when conversations sometimes ramble.

Early on in the movie, Matt wonders why every woman in his life has some destructive character trait, whether it be his wife’s dangerous thrills and alcoholism; his eldest daughter’s (a powerful Shailene Woodley who should be on the tip of every one’s tongues come Oscar time) drinking and drug problems that wound her up in boarding school; or his youngest daughter’s (newcomer child actor Amara Miller) smart-mouth behavior that winds her up in the principal’s office more than the classroom. Realizing that he must become a true parent quickly to keep his daughters on the right track, The Descendants is full of small, sweet moments between the family missing the one member who held them all together.

The theme of destruction on seemingly pristine surfaces is visualized in a subplot where the King family is fielding buyers to sell their inherited massive land holdings.

Capturing the beauty of Hawaii without having the film become a travelogue, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael keeps the sweeping shots to a minimum, but does not waste moments of beauty. Instead, there is an employment of wide and far shots with the characters kept at focused to maximize the lush, scenic (and frequently rainy) background.

So far one of the best films released this year, The Descendants is that rare pedigree movie that all ages can enjoy (rated R for language, the cursing is few and fleeting) as it does not pander to the emotions but entices them with the relatable family aspects. While most Oscar hopefuls find their audience on DVD, The Descendants' near-perfection ascends it to “must see in theaters” status.
9 out of 10



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