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The Descendents: movie review

November 25, 2011

Looking for a film to watch this holiday season? Check out this movie review of The Descendants by Ron Wells; maybe it’s what you need to be even more thankful for what you have…and to remember that the grass is not always greener even if it’s on George Clooney’s side of the fence beside his pool in Hawaii…SPOILER ALERT The trailer above and the review below might give more away than you want to know.

With Hawaii as a backdrop and Hawaiian music playing throughout, director Alexander Payne once again takes a close and textured look at imperfect human beings who are this time living in “paradise” in the new film, The Descendants. If you’ve seen any other of Payne’s movies such as Election, Sideways, or About Schmidt, then you will understand what you are in for.

George Clooney as Matthew King is excellent as the father, the “back-up parent,” who is seemingly unaware that his family is coming apart, and gives an Oscar worthy performance that anchors the film. When his wife, Elizabeth, is suddenly put in a coma, Matthew comes to realize that his family is like an “archipelago slowly drifting apart.” This includes his two daughters, 10 year old Scottie (Amara Miller) and the teenage Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). Woodley is especially notable as the angry, rebellious daughter who will have to learn to grow and become her father’s confidant and helper if this family is going to make it.

While the mother is in a coma, these three descend into a whirlpool of pent up anger and misunderstandings as they lash out at others, as well as at each other, in sometimes graphically explicit language, and yet try to grab hold of one another lest they sink into the abyss.

All of these characters are beautifully drawn as are the minor characters played by Nick Krause, Robert Forester, Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer. Everyone of them, no matter how large or small their part, adds something to the story as they circle around and near the King family.

What unfolds is a story that does not let you assume anything about anybody. These are complex characters entangled in a plot where good and bad, anger and love, are all intricately intertwined.

Add to all of this the fact that there is a huge land deal in the works as Matthew meets with his close relatives about selling a part of Kauai that will bring them millions of dollars, plus there’s an extra marital affair that brings even more pain into this volatile mix.

What we get is a family dealing with a possible death, marriages imploding, and a contentious business deal all pulling and tearing them in ways none of them could have foreseen.

And yet in the midst of all of this, there are humorous moments that come from the characters lives and not from some joke machine, for the humor is as real as the tragedy which is playing itself out. In one scene Matthew is running down the street and we have no idea where he is running, as it appears he may be running as much to something, as he is running from something. It’s alternately funny and a bit frightening since we don’t know where he’s headed and what he might do when he gets there.

This is a story where someone may begin by saying how truly sorry they are about something going on, and then just as quickly have that sorrow turn to ugly hateful words. It’s that kind of film.

The cast is first rate from top to bottom, inhabiting characters whose lives we come to care about, though everything they’re going through is a bit messy and uncomfortable. It is not a movie to go and see if you want to escape. On the contrary, it’s a film as complicated and surprising as life itself. From Kaui Hart Hemmings novel, Payne and co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash invite the audience to take a sideways look at life and watch how these characters fight to find their way through a maze of conflicting emotions that is not easy to get out of.

Don’t be fooled by the beautiful Hawaiian backdrop and music. This is a film in which human beings in all their complexity try and come to some understanding of each other and of their own lives. It’s a world in which sometimes sitting on the couch, watching tv, and sharing ice cream may as be as close to paradise as any of us can hope to get. Seeing the film is like watching the ever changing ocean surrounding the illusion of paradise with all of it’s anger, sadness, and beauty.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 26, 2011 6:20 pm

    George Clooney has been a busy man this year. He’s directed and starred in The Ides of March. Now he’s starring in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. In both films, he’s been at his absolute best. On the other hand, Alexander Payne, who’s known for his films About Schmidt and Sideways, has been just the opposite. We haven’t seen him behind the camera in seven years. In The Descendants, he doesn’t let moviegoers down. His latest movie is a moving juxtaposition of Hawaii’s beauty and grace with the pains and stresses of everyday life. For more of my thoughts on The Descendants, check out my review on Sobriety Test Movie Reviews at

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