Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Film Review: The Descendants

It has been seven long years since Sideways, Alexander Payne's beautifully fraught paean to the middle age man, but the wait for a new film, just the director's fifth in fifteen years, is finally over. The Descendants, stars George Clooney as Matt King, a Hawaiian land baron who must deal with the stress of his wife being in a seemingly irreversible coma, finding out that she was having an affair and was going to leave him, having to care for his two daughters, one ten the other seventeen, by himself for the first time in his life, and brokering a deal for selling off the family land as all his money-hungry cousins breathe down his neck about it and his father-in-law blames him for the coma. In other words, it is the worst of times and it was the worser of times.

Essentially taking on the struggles of the middle age man once again, or perhaps slightly over middle age man (sorry George), Payne gives us a look into the life of one particular man who should be falling apart were he not as strong as he is - strong even when it looks as if he were not. And it is Clooney who makes this happen. In fact the entire film is George Clooney really. Payne gets a pair of stunningly subtle performances out of both Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller as Clooney's daughters, as well as from Nick Krause as a doofus friend of his eldest daughter (Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer and Robert Forster also have small but productive roles), but when push comes to shove, The Descendants is Clooney's film to fly with or crash and burn with.

Now even though the film, or more accurately, the film's script, does border on the ordinary (though there is some pretty great stuff here, and it does have more maturity than his past works, this is surely Payne's least dynamic film), Clooney does manage to get the film to soar more often than not. With the actor's expressive eyes and unique body language (Clooney, often thought of as more of a movie star rather than as a bona fide actor, really is underrated in many circles) he gives his character both a sense of inherent grief and hopeful optimism, and he blends these two polar opposites into a surprisingly complex characterization of loss and rebirth. It is truly a testament to Clooney's acting ability, his prowess if you will, that a film that would have otherwise gone the way of most typical mainstream movies of this ilk, was made as dynamic as it was.

This bravura performance by Clooney (a work of remarkable subtlety actually) may not put The Descendants in a league with the aforementioned Sideways (this new film may be Payne's weakest work, but is still a film full of emotional depth, and as I stated earlier, surprising maturity), but it does put the character of Matt King in a league with Payne's other great men of ultimate sorrow, like the comic/tragic loneliness of About Schmidt's Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson's most absorbing performance since the seventies), the self-centered insecurities of Paul Giamatti's Miles in Sideways (no fucking merlot!) or the manic desperation of Jim McCallister in Election (Matthew Broderick playing the antithesis of his Ferris Bueller). It may not make Payne's film the great work I wish it had been, but it does raise it to a level it otherwise would not have reached. All-in-all, not a bad deal.


3guys1movie.com said...

Nice post, I think I liked this a bit more than you did. However, I would concur that Clooney was top notch in this picture.
You didn't feel that Woodley was that good in this? I thought she was wonderful. Also felt the soundtrack was excellent but then again I am into that whole tiki thing.

Dan said...

I agree with some of your points, especially after Clooney's performance. The interesting part is that I consider The Descendants Payne's best, and most emotionally mature film. Part of what I liked is the "ordinary" parts of the script, which feel natural and lack the showy nature of some of the big scenes in Sideways and his earlier movies. Nice job with the review.

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