Fri 18 Nov 2011
Coming off a lot of festival buzz is writer/director Alexander Payne’s, “The Descendants” and there are three reasons people are wondering if it can be one of the contenders in the upcoming awards race:
1) It’s been 7 years since Payne’s last feature film, “Sideways”, and his track record is rather impressive, with “About Schmidt”, “Election” and “Citizen Ruth” also under his belt. While some were more widely seen than others, they all received fairly kind critical notice.
2) Pretty much anything with George Clooney these days seems to carry a pre-established sense of gravitas. His ability to be picky about the scripts, casts, and directors he wants to work with allows a greater percentage of those films to be more than mere diversions for audiences looking to mentally escape a hectic workweek.
3) The film’s pretty good.
The story centers on Matt King (Clooney), a lawyer in Hawaii with bloodlines that trace back to King Kamehameha, who’s facing a few difficult decisions. He’s in charge of figuring out the best way to sell off a large parcel of family-owned land in Kauai before a trust dissolves and ownership rights get tricky. This means dealing with a horde of cousins who disagree with one another on what that best way should be and being under the scrutiny of Hawaiians who don’t want the pristine land turned into another tourist trap.
Then there’s his home life. From the outset of the film, his wife is in a coma following an accident and Matt is about to discover the problems in their marriage were bigger than he thought. Add in two daughters he’s never had to parent on his own (Shailene Woodley & Amara Miller) and the emotional minefield is now fully armed. The plot progresses as Dad and the girls navigate their way through Mom’s hospital stay and begin to figure out how to their roles with one another.
Most effective in the film is the script and the cast. Payne has always had a knack for sharp dialogue and the ability to get to the core of his characters; they’re flawed in the way real people are flawed and they’re on the hunt for answers to deal with whatever phase of their life is being presented on-screen at the time. Working hand-in-hand with that script is a well-cast group of actors.
Of course, it starts with Clooney. While I’m of the opinion he’s more movie star than actor, it’s hard to deny his likability and this is a slight departure from just portraying Dr. Ross/Danny Ocean one more time. But what really sells things are Woodley, Miller, and the chemistry among all three. Their performances deliver not only the line readings but also the nuances to these characters. Each of them is dealing with the events surrounding them in their own ways, and it’s a joy to watch them on-screen.
Supporting cast members are also up to the task, helping to paint a picture of what this family must have been like before the accident and the degree to which they’ll have to band together to weather this particular storm. Of course, Robert Forster makes for one hell of a father-in-law and Judy Greer plays sympathetic and endearing as good as they come. The two odd bits are Matthew Lillard and Nick Krause.
Not for lack of effort or ability, seeing Lillard portray an actual adult just feels a bit … wrong. Having films like “SLC Punk”, “Hackers” and “Scream” cemented into memory, the notion of being someone with a job and kids is almost foreign. As for Krause, there’s nothing wrong performance wise. He’s a friend of the oldest daughter, tagging along with her to provide moral support. However, he’s also the very definition of a plot device, helping steer Clooney at just the right time and providing comic relief when things could possible get a bit too tense for some.
Perhaps my biggest complaint is the extent to which we interact with Lillard and Greer, as it seems like the sole focus of the picture should be on the immediate family but even that, and the obviousness of using Krause as a plot device, didn’t detract much from the overall experience. And although there’s not much apart from the script and perhaps the eldest daughter’s performance that may stand out once 2011 shakes out, “The Descendants” is often entertaining, slightly cathartic, and well worth a trip to the theaters, earning it a 4 out of 5.