Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Review: "The Descendants"

It's nearly December, and I have yet to fall in love with a movie this year. There have been plenty I liked, and a handful I really admired and respected. "The Descendants," the new film from Alexander Payne, is among the latter.

But I've yet to experience a film that truly left me gobsmacked, lifted me up and tossed me around and left me shaking. Movie critics take pains to put on a cynical veneer, but we're actually a lot like teenage girls: we're giddily awaiting the crazy whirlwind romance.

I've been for a spin or two in 2011, but I'm still waiting to be swept off my feet.

Payne specializes in serious, cerebral movies that toe the line between pain and laughter. Accepting a Golden Globe for best performance in a drama in "About Schmidt," Jack Nicholson famously quipped, "I thought we made a comedy." Payne makes the sort of movies -- "Election," "Citizen Ruth" -- that don't so much blur the line between drama and comedy as render the distinction unimportant.

He hasn't made a feature film since 2004's "Sideways," but he's back at the top of his game with "The Descendents." It's a career-changing performance by George Clooney, playing a dad -- that in of itself is a seismic shift; he's nearly always been the lothario or lone wolf -- coping with his wife in a coma.

Clooney is open and vulnerable in a way we've never seen before; his character is at a crossroads in life and doesn't know what to do. He has lots of questions and few answers. It's the opposite of the typical male movie star role, in which the guy always looks like he's in control, or at least pretends to be.

Even in "Up in the Air," which has some thematic similarities, Clooney played a charmer who oozes confidence. Here, Clooney he gives the boot to his too-cool-for-school shtick and isn't afraid to look weak.
Matt King is upfront about how he's put his career as a lawyer before his wife and two daughters: "I'm the backup parent, the understudy," he confides in the opening narration.

With his wife in a vegetative state after a boating accident, Matt is left to deal with his 10-year-old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller), who's acting out, and 17-year-old Alexandra (a terrific Shailene Woodley), who's out-and-out rebelling.

Things were a little rocky in Matt's marriage, but it's left to Alexandra to give him the news: his wife was cheating on him. Matt is simply unable to deal with this information. Here's a guy who prides himself on his rationality, and he's left sputtering with chaotic emotions by the betrayal.

Complicating things further is the impending disposition of the family plot in Hawaii that's been the birthright of Matt's clan for 150 years. Many of his wide-ranging cousins are broke, and are clamoring for a piece of the pie if they sell to a developer for big, big money -- we're talking half a billion here, folks.

Did I mention the movie is set in Hawaii? Payne's films tend to be very evocative of a specific place, and "The Descendents" is no exception. There are gorgeous shots of the island landscape, of course, but it's more about capturing the laid-back atmosphere. From the way people instinctively remove their shoes before entering a house to the groovy, free-hugging vibe most of the natives espouse, Payne gives the film a sun-kissed, exotic authenticity.

A few other supporting characters turn up. Alexandra's friend Sid (Nick Krause) is part stoner hanger-on, part boyfriend who says outrageously offensive things but somehow becomes the glue that holds their frayed bonds together. Robert Forster has a blunt, caustic turn as Matt's father-in-law, who does not hold his tongue or his fists when provoked.

Written by Payne, Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, based on the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, "The Descendants has a smart script that's well executed by all involved, especially Clooney and Payne. I really, really, really like this movie a lot. Love will have to wait.

3.5 stars out of four

1 comment:

  1. Book is a bit of a slow read. The ending was expected, story line was not unique. Setting of the story was wonderful and made the story what it is. True to the Hawaiian islands. I read on my Nook Color and there were several spots in the book where I could not advance the page and actually had to select a page number several pages beyond where I was reading, therefore I missed a number of pages and lost the story line with those pages.