THE DESCENDANTS (2011) / Comedy-Drama

Running Length: 115 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for language including some sexual references.

Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Nick Krause, Amara Miller, Judy Greer, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Matthew Lillard
Director: Alexander Payne
Producers: Alexander Payne, Jim Burke, Jim Taylor
Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor, Nat Faxon (based upon the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings)

The Descendants is director Alexander Payne’s first work since Sideways in 2004. However, unlike Sideways or, say, Election, The Descendants takes a more dramatic approach in resolving its issues, showing us a side of the director that Sideways only briefly touched on. That’s not saying that it doesn’t have a sense of humor – it does, but only enough of one to provide us with a few momentary laughs. Payne does not sidetrack us for too long with a funny joke; he gets right to the point.

The Descendants is undoubtedly his most personal work yet, so to speak. Set in Honolulu, the story focuses on Matt King (George Clooney), a lawyer, father, and somewhat-devoted husband whose thrill-seeking wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is rendered comatose as the result of a boating accident. Because of this, Matt is forced to step in as full-time parent; something he has never had to do before. Work has always been his primary obligation. It was Elizabeth that was in charge of running the household, so Matt’s relationship with his two daughters, Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), has slowly deteriorated over time. Now, he’s forced to confront both them and their problems, and he’s entirely unprepared for either.

All of this happens in the midst of closing an important land deal. Matt is a descendant of one of the first white land-owning families on the island and is in charge of deciding whether or not to turn a large tract of undeveloped land into a vacation spot. Up until now, he’s been all for it, but with the added weight of personal crisis on his shoulders, he’s forced to rethink his options. Pressure to close the deal and take care of his family steadily mounts, and that’s not to mention the fact that he finds out that his wife was cheating on him.

At first, The Descendants seems exactly like what you’d expect: a film designed specifically to win its lead actor an Academy Award. (I gathered that just by glancing at the film’s poster.) Granted, Clooney’s name alone will attract most of the film’s audience, but his performance his not the only reason to see the film. There’s a fine cast of actors and actresses alongside him (most notably Shailene Woodley and Matthew Lillard) and while their performances don’t quite parallel his, they’re still just as important.

George Clooney has long since mastered the ability to create understated, intelligent characters. Matt King is the same old Clooney that we’ve seen in previous films like Up in the Air, The American, and Michael Clayton. He’s as sleek, dark, and handsome as ever, but ultimately, he was miscast. Sure, the performance that he gives is solid and one that deserves a fair amount of praise, but another actor would have been far better suited in his position. His demeanor just doesn’t fit the bill and on occasion, he’ll fall flat with his line readings. Understand that I’m not criticizing his performance; I just wasn’t entirely convinced by it.

The most promising aspect is Woodley, who many will know as the star of the ABC Family series “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.” But while she delivers arguably the best supporting performance, it won’t be her that most audiences will find their attention directed at. No, that would be Nick Krause as the film’s comic relief. He plays Sid, Alexandra’s stoner boyfriend whose own cluelessness often gets the better of him. Other standouts include veteran actor Robert Forster, Beau Bridges, and a brief appearance from Matthew Lillard.

Oddly enough, the weakest link is the script, which, despite some decent plot turns, is disappointingly average. Payne utilizes standard clichés to get him from one end to another and never really incorporates anything of his own, so what could have been great and original ends up being only serviceable. But overall, The Descendants is a pleasant outing at the movie theater. There are individual areas that need working on, but as a whole, the film and its message are entirely effective.

Final rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

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