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The Descendants - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
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The Descendants
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Directing: A
Acting: A-
Writing: A-
Cinematography: A
Editing: A



George Clooney's character, Matt King, sums it up pretty early on: "Fuck paradise," he says, dismissing the idea that because he and in family lives in Hawaii, that must mean they live every day in paradise. If The Descendants is any indication, people living in Hawaii have lives just as fucked up as the rest of us. They just live more of their fucked up days in shorts.

It might do good to note, however, that at least in Matt's family, their pervasive yet very normal problems do not result in them taking their environment for granted. These are characters who actively appreciate the island scenery. This is lucky for us, as it means we get to see a whole lot of gorgeous and lush landscape.

This is director and co-writer Alexander Payne's first film since the superb Sideways (2004). Seven years is the longest Payne has ever gone between directing feature films, and it's almost as though he was just taking as long as it took to create something every bit as good. There really isn't anything wrong with this film.

Okay, maybe they could have found a slightly better child actor than Amara Miller as Scottie, Matt's 11-year-old daughter with a penchant for flipping people off. But really I'm grasping at straws here. Amara Miller is fine, or at least fine enough not to distract from Clooney, who truly deserves an Oscar nomination as a man blindsided by both his wife's boating accident putting her in a coma and the revelation that she'd been having an affair. And credit must be given to Shailene Woodley as Alexandra, Matt's college-aged daughter. Woodley has a look reminiscent of a young Lindsey Lohan, with easily the same talent but none of the baggage. This girl deserves to become just as famous but hopefully not so much of a train wreck. Time will tell.

She plays a surprisingly tender young adult here, in any case, striking an unusual balance for a character with a penchant for foul language and deceptively skin-deep disrespect for authority. In a way, she becomes the rock of this broken family, after Matt brings her home from school and finds himself barely able to keep his head above water. His kids resent him for having been so busy with work for so long, but they all make it clear from the beginning that through thick and thin they are still a family and love each other. It's honestly a nice thing to see.

This is a story unlike most, but with characters you feel like you know, or could know, in real life. They're just pushing through. The Descendants is a surprisingly sad movie; it's not quite as funny as the trailer makes it seem. But it's also deeply affecting.

Most of the story involves Matt and Alexandra working together to find the man Matt's wife had been having an affair with. They go so far as to take a trip to one of the other islands just because they find out the other man is currently on a trip there. There is an entire sequence where Matt and Alexandra approach the house to talk to both the man and his wife, making it clear to the man that he's been found out but without betraying it to the wife. This scene alone would come first in the reasons why this is a great movie, as it's a fine example of superb writing, acting, editing and delivery. It feels like everything led up to this.

Amazingly, every character here somehow comes across as endearing -- even the adulterous Other Man (Matthew Lillard), as well as Matt's clueless dickhead of a father-in-law (Robert Forster). Said father-in-law gets so mad at Alexandra's doofus boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) for laughing at his wife's dementia that he punches him right in the face. This plays out in such a way that you still kind of love both Sid and the father-in-law. Payne does such a great job of sympathetically portraying the flawed humanity of each character that you could argue it's unrealistic. In real life, there are some people you kind of hate. Here, you can't even bring yourself to think of the cheating bastard as a bastard. Just a cheater.

Not that I'm complaining, mind you. There's something refreshingly un-cynical about this approach, and best of all, there's none of the pretense of wholesomeness that countless other directors and writers would have shoehorned into this movie. Rather, there is an undercurrent of sweetness that feels genuine. This is reflected largely in a subplot involving a wide swath of unspoiled land owned by Matt and his cousins, and an encroaching law forcing them to consider selling it to potential developers. Matt feels a connection to this land because it was part of an inheritance given to a direct descendant of original Hawaiian royalty (hence the title). This royal blood runs through his own veins, as well as those of his daughters. Matt is largely a bumbling father who until now had little time for his kids, but this genetic thread and its connection to the land ties them together.

It's always nice to see a story about real people in a place not often featured in the movies, which tend to favor L.A. or New York for obvious reasons. Here, it's not just a different setting for the sake of being alternative, but in its own way a slice of Americana that most of us just aren't privy to. The Descendants reveals its many layers the more you think about it.

(L-R) Shailene Woodley, George Clooney, Amara Miller and Nick Krause do dysfunction the Hawaiian way in THE DESCENDANTS.


Overall: A
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Comments
tommy50702 From: tommy50702 Date: January 10th, 2015 05:40 am (UTC) (Link)
Nice movie. I liked it. George Clooney was good. He must be getting better as he ages.
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