Movie Review: The Descendants

Alexander Payne’s new movie, The Descendants, is great, but in a way that’s almost frustratingly self-evident for a critic like me. The best possible way I could convey the quality of this film would be to actually show it to you, with my hand extended towards the screen as if to say, “see?!” This is truly a film of unimpeachable caliber by all objective measurements: the acting (especially that of star George Clooney) is phenomenal, the Hawaii setting pitch-perfect, and the events play out completely naturally. Even the soundtrack is perfect.

The quality of this film is undoubtedly the result of a team effort: director Payne deftly delineates a sort of quietly devastating crisis in the life of wealthy Hawaiian lawyer Matt King (Clooney), which Clooney then makes shine through unbelievable restraint. King, whose wife has recently entered a coma from a motorboat accident, is intelligent, hardworking, and well-off, but still can’t seem to obtain any sort of tangible happiness. Clooney positively glows even in the opening scenes of the film, but the movie truly begins to take off when he takes his two daughters on a trip across Hawaii, the purpose of which is deliciously ambiguous. The movie starts to unfold here simply because Payne seems so ecstatic to explore every facet of the characters and the world in which they live. Whether it be the dreary side of Hawaii often not shown in movies like these, the hypocrisy and shortsightedness of Matt King, the pain of infidelity, or even the simple sadness of having to say goodbye, every single theme, character trait, and mood within the film is analyzed lovingly. This is how the film narrowly avoids cliche; shouldering a potentially banal subject matter–a workmanlike father trying to connect with his son(s) and/or daughter(s)! Oh boy!–the cast gleefully revel in the specificities of their characters, allowing for a true connection between the performers and the audience that instantly transcends vapidity. Thus, The Descendants becomes something much more than just a “Hawaiian road trip” movie; it instead becomes a thrillingly personal statement from Payne.

George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, and Amara Miller star in The Descendants

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I haven’t even mentioned that the film just looks and sounds nice, with bits of brilliantly-written dialogue and exposition distributed among scenes of beautiful Hawaiian scenery. As I mentioned earlier, The Descendants is interested in exploring the darker corners of its setting and characters, but the movie isn’t overly pessimistic. The screenplay adeptly balances out the often piercingly sad events of the film with hilarious jokes–Sid, played by Nick Krause, is an especially bountiful well of comic gold–that somehow feel completely organic within context. When the film reaches its touching final scene, the effect is similar to that of a completed tightrope walk. The film could go wrong in a million different ways–whether by being predictable, silly, pandering, or just a complete downer–and yet it never does. So yes, as I said earlier, this a movie that’s almost bewildering in its impeccability, but it’s also something to be cherished. The Descendants the most lovingly honest movie I’ve seen this year.

–Alex Robertson, Arts Editor
Posted by on December 2, 2011. Filed under Arts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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