Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Descendants review

It's been seven years since Alexander Payne's last film and the last film he made was his best. Sideways came out in 2004 and became a critical darling, winning all kinds of awards, and even managing to nab an Oscar for best screenplay. Sideways was the perfect combination of drama and comedy. It had some silly moments, some thought-provoking moments, and overall it had characters you cared about. Alexander Payne was going to have a tough time following up that film, but he does his best with The Descendants. Even though it doesn't quite compare, it did remind me that I missed Alexander Payne and that he has to make more films. Bottom line it's an excellent comedy/drama that is about how people deal with pain and loss. It's also blessed with a nice cast starting with George Clooney and supported by Rob Heubel, Judy Greer, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, and even Matthew Lillard comes out of nowhere and gives a pleasant performance.

The film is about Matt King (Clooney) who had been entrusted his family's land in Hawaii, who have owned the land for hundreds of years, and he has to debate whether or not to sell or keep the land. He also now has to deal with taking care of his daughters as his wife is in a coma from a boating accident. He's the back-up parent, as he says so himself. To make matters worse, he finds out that his wife had been in an affair before she had the accident.

That's really when the movie starts to pick up and seeing George Clooney as Matt King struggle with these conflicts is definitely worth watching. Here, Clooney shows emotional depth that hasn't really been seen from him before and the screenplay allows his feelings to unfold in a slow, natural, and realistic way. Alexander Payne has always been a mature filmmaker, but it's safe to say this is his most mature and dramatic film yet. That said, the combination of the relaxed, laid back Hawaiian pace and the very heartfelt emotional dramatic scenes can be a bit of an odd mix at times. The film is at its best when Matt King is trying to find the guy who his wife had an affair with. The scenes dealing with his wife in a coma can be a bit of a mixed bag. I think it was a mixed bag because it's tough to deal with such a serious subject and try to have light-hearted moments in the mix (kinda like with "50/50").

What makes this a standout film of the year is the way the movie takes a seemingly meaningless B-story (Matt King selling the island) and eventually ties it in with the main story. That's when the movie really starts coming into its own. Once you start to realize how serious the stakes are for Matt King, his family, his past, and his future, the current events that are happening in his family mean that much more. Matt King is a character with legitimate concerns who has to make tough decisions that really could go either way. As usual, George Clooney plays him effortlessly, and yet this is probably Clooney at his most emotional. Throughout his career, Alexander Payne has always had a way of getting the best out of his actors from acting giants Jack Nicholson and George Clooney to actors with much lesser resumes like Matthew Lillard, Chris Klein, Thomas Haden Church.

There are so many different facets to this movie, so many different tones to balance and it goes through the whole array of emotions but Alexander Payne handles it all very well. It's not quite his best, but it's still a film that reminds us why he's so revered as a director. I can't wait for more films from him. As for Clooney, I really hope to see him continuing to challenge himself as an actor. He's never gonna go too crazy in his choices of roles, but any movie that manages to get something different out of George Clooney is a successful movie.

rating: 8.5/10

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