The Descendants (4 out of 5 stars)
Directed by: Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways)
Written by:Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, and Amara Miller
Seven years ago was the last time Alexander Payne wrote and directed another film. Payne's last film was the brilliant Sideways, which chronicled a wine connoisseur's experiences in love, and life. Payne has had a great repertoire of films. The first Payne film I saw was 1999's Election (potentially his best) then there was About Schmidt in 2002, and my personal favorite his last film Sideways (2004). The Descendants ranks as my least favorite Payne but this is also some pretty solid film making.
The Descendants follows Matt King (George Clooney) who is trying to bring his family together while his wife lays in a hospital bed in a coma after a tragic boating accident. Matt is working to come to grips with no longer being "the back up parent" and helping his children cope with their mother's situation. Matt also has to deal with his extended family and a piece of land they own. Matt and his family are descendants of Hawaiian royalty and white ancestors. Matt is the trust and has sole control over what to do with the land; his trust will expire in seven years because of the law. Back to the story I actually cared more about. As Matt's wife's condition worsens he brings his daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) home to tell her his mom is not going to make it, and then she tells Matt her mom was cheating on him.
The strongest part of this film for me was George Clooney's performance. I thought he played against type well, and gave one of his best performances. My favorite scene was when he walked into his wife's room and cursed at her while she was laying there for making his life so hard. Then when he later starts to cry as he realizes even though he has experienced so much pain. Shailene Woodley who plays Matt's daughter Alex is pretty strong in this film. I have seen her television show The Secret Life of the American Teenager, and to see this performance come from her proves that strong material and direction matter! Judy Greer who always plays wonderful small roles shines in one the last scenes of the film, I wish she was in the film more.
Payne's direction and the screenplay are solid. I did not care for storyline (as much) that gave the film its title. As Matt needs to decide what to do with his land I often felt a little displaced from that story. The stronger emotional context came from watching this family deal with their own imperfections while they watched someone slip out of their life. Payne's strength is often dark humor, and while this film had some laughs the strength was the strong dramatic moments. While the dark humor was there and was often funny with Matt's youngest daughter acting out in the beginning it was sometimes off putting like Alex's friend Sid laughing at her grandmother's alzheimer's.
Even with a more awkward voice over from Matt, the beginning of the film starts with him talking about how outsiders glamorize Hawaii, meanwhile people who live their still have problems. The direction and screenplay do a good job highlighting both the beauty and troubles that exist within this paradise.