“The Descendants” is up for five Academy Awards this year including best picture and best actor for George Clooney. Is it really that good? I’d say yes, but this is a film that is dividing audiences.
I’ve heard several anecdotes of people coming out of this movie underwhelmed or even saying it was awful. Not everyone needs to love a certain film. There is no right answer in what makes a film, or any piece of art, good or bad, but, I can’t help but wonder what it was that turned people off from a film that I found to be so funny, honest, moving and genuine.
The answer could lie in what a person’s expectations are when they go to see a film. For some, watching a film is meant to be pure escapism and they don’t want reality reflected back at them.
“The Descendants” is a film that feels real from the way characters interact to their emotions. It is an entertaining film that includes moments with the power to move as well as some big laughs. This is a film that may hit too close too home for some viewers and this may be what causes a disconnect from the picture.
Set in Hawaii, the film centers on Clooney’s Matt King, a distant, but loving husband and father of two daughters, dealing with a wife in a coma who will die if taken off life support. He now must inform friends and family about his wife’s inevitable death, but that’s not all that is on his plate.
Matt’s eldest daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) informs him that his wife was cheating on him. This creates deeply mixed emotions in both father and daughter. They are both grieving the loss, but at the same time are full of anger toward her.
Father and daughter set out to find the man (Matthew Lillard) that was seeing their wife/mother. Along for the ride is Sid (Nick Krause), Alexandra’s boyfriend. She wants him there for moral support. At first he seems like nothing more than a dimwitted punk, but as the film progresses it becomes clear why Alexandra wants him there.
Oh, but there’s more. The title refers to Matt and his many cousins being the descendants of former Hawaiian kings. It is up to Matt to decide what to do with the last bit of land still entrusted to them.
This may seem like an overly busy plot or fodder for a harried screwball comedy, but director and co-writer Alexander Payne finds a delicate balance. Life can be like this. Tragedy can strike at the most inconvenient times and you must deal with it all.
As was true with his other films “Election,” “Sideways” and “About Schmidt,” Payne has a way of writing dialogue that feels authentic. His characters are intelligent and well spoken, but don’t speak in forced movie dialogue. The story never becomes schmaltzy, trite or overly manipulative.
As a director he gets performances that are grounded in real emotion. With material like this it could be easy to have big, over-the-top performance. That isn’t the case here. The performances are balanced, controlled and well measured.
Clooney gives a quiet, subtle performance. Some may unjustly hold Clooney’s looks against him as if a man in Matt’s position couldn’t look like Clooney. The performance speaks for itself, though. There are several moments in the film that simply focus on Clooney's face and he says more in silence than he could with a whole monologue. He captures Matt’s emotional turmoil and struggle to connect with his daughters
Woodley, who stars in the TV show “The Secret Life of the American Teen,” brings depth that her TV work never even hinted at. Like Clooney she must juggle complex shifting emotions of hurt and anger and she handles it gracefully.
The rest of the cast is also superb. Amara Miller, in her first acting job, as the youngest daughter holds her own with Clooney and Woodley and gives a believable and complete performance. Lillard, who is known for goofy comic performances, gives a surprisingly effective dramatic turn. Judy Greer, Robert Forrester and Beau Bridges do solid work as Lillard's wife, a grandfather and cousin respectively.
This may seem like a downer of a movie, but it isn’t. There is sadness in this story to be true, but it also finds laughs that are never exploitative. It may not be for everyone, but for those who get on its wavelength, it is a film that is warm, tender, funny and thoughtful.