Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Movie review: "The Descendants"

Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Judy Greer
Directed by Alexander Payne

First off, Alexander Payne should make movies more often. Seven years since winning an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for “Sideways,” the writer-director has finally made his follow-up. And much like the great 2004 comedy-drama following a pair of men on a road trip into California’s wine country, “The Descendants” takes viewers on another journey of discovery that mixes laughs in with serious domestic upheaval.

Matt King (George Clooney), a workaholic lawyer in Hawaii, finds himself faced with some mighty big dilemmas as the story begins. His wife has fallen into a coma after a tragic speedboat crash, leaving him with the task of stepping up as a father to their two children: Scotti (Amara Miller), a 10-year-old with attitude to spare, and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), who is just barely able to keep her anger and disappointment in her parents under the surface.

Learning early on from doctors that his wife’s condition will not improve, Matt goes to retrieve Alexandra from boarding school (finding her there drunk), and sets out with his children to break the bad news to family and friends. The painful process for Matt is unexpectedly complicated when he learns his wife was in the midst of an affair prior to her accident, setting him off on an obsessive hunt to discover who she was involved with.

As if his domestic drama wasn’t enough, a big decision was already weighing on Matt’s mind before his wife’s accident, involving the potential sale of 25,000 acres of prime real estate on one of the islands. As the primary beneficiary, Matt holds all the cards as to whether his family (including a large assortment of cousins) makes off like bandits by selling the pristine property to real estate developers. It’s a burden he probably could have done without at this exact point in his life.

Like Payne’s prior efforts, “The Descendants” moves at a relaxed pace, allowing time for the personalities and intentions of the characters to emerge. Clooney, leaving his almost trademarked charm at the door, strikes the right cord with a performance that could have easily veered off into scenery chewing, given the complexity of emotions required for his character. He’s matched consistently by Woodley (a newcomer to movies) as the eldest daughter, swimming through resentment at her mother and a wary skepticism of her father being able to keep their family unit together.

Balancing a steady dose of comedic moments with tragic drama isn’t easy to pull off. Most movies fail in this regard, lapsing into cheap sentiment and melodrama. But “The Descendants” finds a comfortable balance that manages to surprise at times, remaining effectively funny and moving, while staying true to the flawed nature of the characters.

Grade: A
(Rated R for language including some sexual references.)

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