Review: The Descendants (2011)

The Descendants


Alexander Payne
Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash (Novel: Kaui Hart Hemmings)
115 min.
George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Patricia Hastie, Beau Bridges, Michael Ontkean, Milt Kogan, Robert Forster, Barbara L. Southern, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer
MPAA Rating
R for language including some sexual references

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Alexander Payne can always be called on to explore the landscape around his character as much as the characters he displays. The Descendants is no different as we are shown the beauty of Hawaii and advised that the remote island paradise is no stranger to hard times or human frailties.

The film follows Matt King (George Clooney), an attorney who is the sole signatory on a piece of land that will revert to the state if not sold within 7 years. As he struggles to decide who to sell the property to with no ends of input from a boatload of anxious cousins, a serious boating accident leaves his wife (Patricia Hastie) in a persistant vegetative state from which doctors see no return. Once her living will kicks in, he must break the news to all of her friends and family. To help him do so, he retrieves his daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) from a private school and embarks on a difficult and melancholic task.

There are plenty of complications for Matt and his family, including revelations of infidelity and complications that impact his decision regarding the vast tract of land his family owns in trust. Clooney carries the film well, but it’s 20-year-old Woodley who gives the film’s most skilled performance. Equal parts fatalism, frustration and love, Woodley invokes all the simple emotions of a devoted daughter supporting a grieving father pretending to be strong for her and her younger sister. That’s not to diminish Clooney’s work, he’s in fine form, but Woodley takes control of every scene in which they share.

Payne, in addition to being a first rate screenwriter, is also one of the medium’s best ensemble directors. While he has yet to rival the capability of Robert Altman or Steven Soderbergh, his ability to find the right actors for his intimate portraits is uncanny. Alongside Woodley and Clooney, some of the more notable work in the film comes from Amara Miller as Matt’s youngest, Scottie, and Judy Greer as the wife of Matt’s ex-wife’s lover.

Miller being junior to Woodley has little to do with her capabilities. She doesn’t have nearly as much development as her sister or father, but Miller does surprisingly astute work with her role. And for those who hate the overly precocious children of modern dramas, Miller should provide a nice recess from this cutesy performances. As for Greer, she’s given the thankless task of being the last person clued into the whole affair between her husband and Elizabeth King. She first appears late in the film, but when she’s on screen, you can sense her suspicions. Greer gives us a glimpse at the quiet grief one feels when betrayed by one’s significant other. While Clooney’s exasperation and sadness is more aggressive, Greer’s is reserved, almost expectant. She’s plays Julie Speer on a parallel course to Matt. While one is dealing with the added loss of death, their kinship is easily felt.

Robert Forster and Barbara L. Southern as Elizabeth’s parents, the latter struggling with Alzheimer’s, show up only twice in the film, both well placed, but lacking in the kind of depth that would give either much of a challenge. The same can be said for Beau Bridges who also has only two scenes as Matt’s cousin Hugh. Bridges has done this kind of work with great regularity in the past, so while it’s a solid effort, it’s nothing unexpected.

Which leads to the one utterly surprising turn in the film, that of Matthew Lillard as Brian Speer, the man who had a fleeting affair with Elizabeth. Lillard’s name may seem familiar and if you’ve ever seen Hackers, Scream or the Scooby Doo live action films, you’ll immediately know why. Lillard is known for his exaggerated performances, creating characters so bizarre that they have nearly no basis in reality. When he makes his first and only appearance in the film (I don’t count the realtor yard sign), you’d be hard pressed to recognize him. In his forties now, Lillard’s exuberant mannerisms are gone, replaced by a calm, rational human being. While there’s still a trace of his old self, it’s shocking to see him so absorbed in a character. Much like Thomas Haden Church in Payne’s Sideways, Lillard is snatched from comic roots to deliver a solid performance as a grown-up.

Payne has little problem treating his story with patience and attention to detail. Here, he loses some of his narrative clarity along the way, allowing the dual plotlines to meander towards their clandestine meeting. Keeping the audience in touch with his characters at intervals, Payne doesn’t rein the film in enough to keep it from getting a bit laborious through the middle third. I’ve never had issue with movies or filmmakers that take time to get to a rewarding conclusion, but the film tries a bit too hard to tack on what feels like an extra fifteen minutes of unnecessary footage.

Mere length doesn’t have to ruin a film and The Descendants has sufficient quality in the parts that make up the duration that it’s an acceptable deferment. The film’s observations about the way we handle and express our grief, how we employ self-recrimination as a method to justify our sadness, and the human ability to display strength in the face of frailty are more important than a touch of extra celluloid.
Oscar Prospects
Guarantees: Picture, Director, Supporting Actress (Shailene Woodley), Adapted Screenplay
Probables: Actor (George Clooney), Original Score, Editing, Cinematography
Potentials: Supporting Actress (Judy Greer)
Unlikelies: Supporting Actor (Robert Forster, Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard), Art Direction, Sound Mixing
Review Written
November 30, 2011

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