Hot on the heels of my review for Alexander Payne's first film, Citizen Ruth, comes my review for his latest, The Descendants. I've been looking forward to this movie for a long time. I guess, technically, since after I saw Sideways like 7 years ago, just as I am now looking forward to his next film, whenever that may be. What I'm saying is, I really like Alexander Payne.
The Descendants is, like his films after Election, a comedy, but only kind of. It has funny stuff, but it also has a lot of sad stuff, a lot of moving stuff, and a lot of painfully real stuff. It stars George Clooney as Matt King, a work obsessed Hawaiian husband and father who suddenly finds his whole life upturned all at once when his wife gets in a boating accident and is put into a coma. He was never much of a father to his daughters, who, due to the traumatic circumstances are both acting out in their own ways, ways that he has no clue how to deal with. On top of this, Matt is in the midst of a huge land deal that could make him and his extended family millionaires, but would bruise the state of Hawaii by bringing development to hundreds of acres of untouched land. As if all that wasn't enough, his life is upturned yet again when he learns the hospital intends to pull the plug on his wife, and it is revealed to him that she was having an affair before the accident.
This guy really needs a break, doesn't he?
So the premise that drives The Descendants is Clooney taking his daughters on a trip to Oahu to find and confront the man his wife was sleeping with. It sounds like I already gave away a lot of the movie, but that was just a whole lot of set-up.
The acting is top notch. George Clooney gives one of his best performances to date. Alexander Payne has a way of taking huge movie stars and making an audience forget that they're famous. It was quite a feat he performed in About Schmidt, making Jack Nicholson the least Jack Nicholson he's ever been.
Clooney is surrounded by a colorful cast of supporting characters that are extremely well realized, even the ones who only have a couple of scenes. His daughters, Alexandra and Scottie, carry the movie along with him. Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), his 17 year old, is a bit of a wild child, but still quite intelligent, and she reminds him of her mother in the most painful ways. Scottie (Amara Miller) is 10, and she is already beginning to show signs of rebellion, even as Matt does his best to keep her innocent of her mother's transgressions. The three of them feel like a real family unit, you never question it.
Along for the ride is Sid, Alexandra's mouthy stoner buddy, played by Nick Krause. Alexandra refuses to go along with her father without Sid, and Matt, not knowing how else to deal with her, acquiesces. My little sister has brought many Sids into our lives, so I found his inclusion pretty hilarious and believable.
There are several other talented performers in the movie in smaller roles, including Robert Forster, Mary Birdsong, Rob Huebel, Beau Bridges, and Matthew Lillard as the man he's looking for. I especially liked Judy Greer, who always deserves mention but seldom gets it. She's so good in general, and especially in The Descendants.
The movie hit home for me several times, and I teared up more than once. There's a lot of underlying sadness in Matt King's journey, and a lot of tension within his family at such a trying time, but rather than being a downer in the end, The Descendants is quite life-affirming without ever feeling forced. All told, I came out of it feeling pretty good about things. I haven't done any real tallying at this point, but I'm fairly certain The Descendants will wind up near the top of my favorite movies of the year list.