THE DESCENDANTS Review

It is tough to describe what it is about a film that just hits you in the gut and seems to encompass everything you think of the world. It seems appropriate to give that type of description to this film where a man, in a critical moment in his life, is faced with decisions that will forever affect how he lives the rest of that life. George Clooney has always had a knack for these roles that seem to define so well what it means to actually live. He is so alert and aware to the raw emotion and truths of life that it is almost irritating how good the guy is. Paired here with director Alexander Payne, who has before directed "About Schmidt" which I haven't seen and "Sideways" which I have, and also seems to be an expert in crafting real human stories and tapping into the emotions that are actually spawned from traumatic life events make for a great team in telling this story of a man who is completely opposite the Hollywood persona of George Clooney. "The Descendants" is a straightforward drama that delivers more laughs and genuine heartache than I have seen in a film all year. With the beautiful state of Hawaii as its backdrop and the sometimes ugly journey of a man searching to find his place in a life he has already created this is a film that actually moves you and relates, on a number of levels, to what you might have been feeling just before sitting down to watch it. It involves you in its characters lives and for all of this it is easily one of my favorite films of 2011.

The King clan plus Sid take a stroll on the beach to
try and get away from tragedy.
Clooney plays Matt King, a successful lawyer who, since he practices in Hawaii, looks as if he simply hangs out at the beach all day. In one of the many voice overs Clooney gives in the film he describes the stereotypes that are linked with his homeland and how they couldn't be more wrong. Except for maybe the fact that some of the wealthiest people in Hawaii might look like bums. It is these little insights not only into Matt's mind but into his world allows for Hawaii to become as integral a character to the story as the actual human ones. The film opens with Matt's wife in a coma, we know she had a boating accident and that she hit her head. We know their marriage wasn't in the best state (we knew that fom the trailer) but we also see that any kind of relationship Matt should have with his daughters is non-existent. With his wife dying and the rest of his family waiting on him to make a decision about a piece of land they have been entrusted with and are debating whether or not to sell there is a conflict of interests in the expectations people have for out protagonist. Then there is the bombshell from his oldest daughter Alexandra, that their mom, his wife was having an affair.

Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) and wife
Julie (Judy Greer) find themselves in an
awkward situation. 
As played by Shailene Woodley, Alexandra is a troubled teen, one that has been sent off to boarding school to rid her of her drug habits. It is evident from the moment her father picks her up that not much has changed and that she still wants to be that rebellious adolescent. This relationship though turns out to be the rock of the film. Matt confides in Alexandra and looks to her to help him solve his issues. Not completely, but as far as their mother goes, he needs her and the truth is, whether she wanted to admit at first or not, that she needs him just as much. Shailene Woodley who most will recognize from "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" translates gracefully from TV soap to authentic drama. All the rave reviews you have probably been hearing about her performance are all, for once, satisfyingly true. At one point Matt wonders why all the women in his life want to destroy themselves. It becomes evident that Alexandra is very much a shadow of her mother and in many ways gives Matt the same kind of troubles with which he and his wife struggled. But where he and Alexandra connect is in that bond where she would defend him as a good man no matter what, even if he hasn't been the best father. The film runs its course by chronicling Matt and Alexandra's developing relationship as they search for the man who their wife and mother was having an affair with (Matthew Lillard in a great comeback/mature role). Along for the ride is Scottie, the younger daughter, played with great hilarity and heart by newcomer Amara Miller and Alexandra's friend Sid who proves to be the comic relief and so much more for this dysfunctional clan.

Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Max (George Clooney)
break the news of their mother and wife's impending death
to her parents (Robert Forster and Barbara L. Southern)
As Matt searches for some kind of closure to his wife's life he stumbles upon the realization that he did indeed show his love for her in the wrong way. In the beginning he has hopes of making everything right when she wakes up, that he won't have to deal with those regrets that he didn't take advantage of his good life when he had it and that now he will never know what could have been, but more tragically that he will have never given her all she deserved. It is in that type of mind set that Matt would drive himself crazy. He uses his daughters and his wife's affair to convince himself that she wasn't always his angel and that he can still do right by the lives they created together. It is a slight disappointment more attention isn't paid to Matt's internal struggles and insights that probably made him think more about the beginning of their relationship rather than the sad end of it. This can only be logged as a minor complaint though as the real accomplishment of the film is the way in which it handles the many aspects that make it up with such grace and ease. The film flows at a perfect pace while coming off as messy and as complicated as real life usually is. This story may not be something unheard of or even something that sounds too spectacular or worthy of all the praise it has received but it is not about the story it is telling as much as how that story is conveyed. Director Payne has made it a heartfelt character study of a man in an uncommon dilemma and it is in that character that we find an experience we understand. One that when paired with the sights and sounds of somewhere as beautiful as the Aloha state becomes something more than just a movie, but a cathartic experience.