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A woman lays in a coma in a hospital bed. Her husband grapples with her impending death while trying to assume the mantle of full time parent. As all of this goes one, he must make an important business decision that will not only affect the lives of his family and relatives, but the entire state of Hawaii. Then, his oldest daughter reveals to him that his wife had been having an affair. That’s when his life really goes off the tracks. That’s the set-up for Alexander Payne’s latest great movie, The Descendants (he also helmed Election, About Schmidt and Sideways). In case you didn’t know it by looking at the Blu-ray, this coming of middle age story stars George Clooney as Matt King and features a breakthrough performance by Shailene Woodley as Matt’s oldest daughter, Alex. The movie was nominated for five Academy Awards and won one (Best Adapted Screenplay). It also won a slew of other awards, including a Golden Globe for Best Drama. I’ve seen the movie twice and the second viewing was a much better experience. I was able to watch the film without the lingering questions of “Should this movie win best picture?” and “Should George Clooney win best actor?” I know, we critics should be able to enter a movie theater with an open mind and just watch a motion picture free of distractions from the outside world. Bullshit. With movie ads, Internet blasts and endless TV promos, it’s nearly impossible. When I finally got around to seeing The Descendants in the theater, I did my best not to compare it to, say, Moneyball or Hugo, which I’d recently seen, but it was difficult.
Another factor that affected my second trip watching this film was my awareness of how prominent the theme of death on a family weighs over the entire movie. The TV ads certainly promoted this film as a funny, quirky movie in the vein of Payne’s previous works. Throughout my first screening, I was caught off guard by the many wrenching scenes between Matt’s family and his dying wife. Being prepared for those scenes allowed me to put up some guard and appreciate the fine acting, rather than sobbing in my hands. It also helps to have a remote control button to pause the movie until you can collect yourself, something the movie theater experience definitely doesn’t offer.
I’m not going to lie; this is a very sad movie. How can it not be? Yet the director, working from the excellent script he co-wrote with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, handles everything with a delicate hand. He allows the pain and human comedy to play out naturally. Nothing is forced, as all the right dramatic beats are hit and none of the comedy is over the top. Production wise, the traditional Hawaiian music is a strange mix of melancholy and festive, something I’ve always treasured about music from that region, and the cinematography, while offering a lush view of one of the most gorgeous destinations on the planet, is also muted in places, to indicate a melancholy tone. As Matt makes clear in his opening narration, Hawaii may be a paradise getaway, but the people who live there suffer the same as everyone else, including dealing with failed marriages, adultery and death.
Once again, Payne has put together an unexpected cast that meets every challenge his places before them. Matthew Lillard resurrects his career as the man having an affair with Matt’s wife; Judy Greer adds to her very long list of brilliant but small supporting parts, and relative newcomer, Nick Krause, proves to be a comic discovery as Sid, Alex’s tag along friend. Robert Forester is once again perfect (that scene when he says goodbye to his daughter? Devastating) and Rob Huebel is fantastic. However, it’s the stellar acting of Clooney and Woodley that carry The Descendants.
Woodley, the star of ABC Family’s atrocious, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, shows a maturity in The Descendants that has never been present in any of her previous roles. While some credit is due to Payne’s direction, the ease with which the young star plays this role of a pissed off, resentful teenager, leads me to believe that Payne didn’t have to coax too much out of her. Either she’s a superb method actor, or she’s just an exceptional talent. Either way, this film is a real coming out party for the young star and she nails the role. Nails it. And then there is Mr. Clooney, one of the biggest stars in the world and someone who can do no wrong, as far as I’m concerned. Even when his movies are a complete failure, I credit him for pushing himself and not always doing the same damn thing (except for those Ocean’s Eleven flicks). In this film, through costume design, the right haircut, slightly hunched shoulders and a weary look on his face, one of the world’s most handsome human beings transforms himself into a sad sacked, cuckolded man.
I know, isn’t this how all performances are supposed to be? Sure. But there are times when it’s difficult to separate the star from the role (see-Tom Cruise), just like there are times when it’s difficult to separate the marketing hype from the movie. If you haven’t seen The Descendants, knowing that this film is sad and deals so predominantly with death shouldn’t prevent you from seeing the film. While the subject matter is heavy, this is a very humanistic film, my favorite by Payne so far. You will laugh and cry; you’ll also be fulfilled by the end of the movie.
The Descendantscombo pack includes: deleted Scenes with introductions by Alexander Payne; six featurettes, music videos, a conversation between Clooney and Payne, plus a DVD and digital copy of the film.