The Descendants

“The Descendants” is a beautiful movie.

It’s a shoo-in for Academy Award nominations in several categories, including Best Director and Best Picture. If there’s any justice, Shailene Woodley gets a nod for her incredible work here, and there may even be a nom in George Clooney’s future for it.

It’s laugh out loud funny at several points, touching in numerous ways, occasionally thought-provoking, and I’m not gonna lie, there were a couple of moments when I teared up a bit. It’s a heart warming movie, and genuinely funny.

It’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year with ease.

“The Descendants” is the latest major release from director Alexander Payne, who has brought us “Election”, “About Schmidt”, and “Sideways”, each of which are highly recommendable. The man is developing quite a résumé.

It’s the story of Matt King and his family, and how they cope with the result of a tragic boating accident.

Matt King (George Clooney) is the trustee of a large parcel of undeveloped Hawaiian land… he and his cousins are the descendants of Hawaiian royalty, and they’ve collectively inherited a large number of acres of Hawaiian coastline property. The trust that the land is held in is set to dissolve in seven years, so the cousins, with Matt as trustee, have to figure out how to sell and who to sell to. A transaction which will make them all rich.

Tragically, however, Matt’s wife is in a speed boating accident, and winds up in a coma. He’s forced into taking care of his ten-year old daughter by himself. She’s acting out, as children in such a situation might, and Matt is having difficulty dealing with it. It’s not long before the doctors tell him there’s nothing more they can do for his wife… and Matt knows he also needs to bring his oldest daughter (Shailene Woodley) home from boarding school, in order to be with her family in her mom’s final days. When she comes home, not only does she present Matt with another set of parenting challenges, she also drops a bombshell on him.

His wife, her mother, was having an affair.

Dealing with his daughters, having to say goodbye to his wife, having to deal with the fact that she was unfaithful, and all the while having to negotiate a half a billion dollar real estate deal, put a huge amount of emotional strain on Matt. How he and his family cope makes for a wonderful movie that’s fun, funny, sad, touching, and ultimately, extraordinary.

Payne does a masterful job of orchestrating the mood. Hitting the comedy beats when you wouldn’t expect them (to great effect), and then playing your heartstrings like a virtuoso. Set in suburban Hawaii, the location of this film felt unique to me. It certainly felt like no neighborhood I had visited before. And of course the film occasionally showcases the natural beauty of the islands. Between the gorgeous setting and the beautiful Hawaiian music playing throughout, there’s an excellent juxtaposition between the beauty of the world and the sorrows of life. Which isn’t to say that the film focuses on the sadness. It’s a wonderful portrait of all the facets of life… sorrow, joy, love, loss, friendship, kinship, it’s a very emotionally rich film.

This movie is a mortal lock for a Best Picture nomination, a safe bet for a Best Director nomination for Payne, and even money on noms for Woodley, Forster and Clooney. I would love to see Woodley get nominated for this, she was phenomenal. A terrific, terrific performance. Robert Forster (as the grieving father in law) is the very definition of “Best Supporting Actor”. He had very little screen time, yet he made an unforgettable contribution to the film. I’m a bit torn on Clooney. There were times when I wished he had a little more capabilities in the grieving scenes, but in the comedic areas, he’s phenomenal, so it’s a bit of a trade-off. Not that he’s not excellent, not that he’s not excellent… not that he’s not EXCELLENT. But I just don’t know if this will be Oscar worthy or not. Not my call.

Should this movie take home a statue in any category, I’ll be very very happy for it. It’s completely worthy. I was fortunate to catch it at a free screening in my area held by Fox Searchlight. As everyone let out, there was a Fox rep polling people for their reactions. I made my way over to him, made eye contact, and told him with all the seriousness that I could muster… “That was phenomenal.”

I’ll tell you all the same.



25 thoughts on “The Descendants

  1. I wasn’t taken aback by this as so many other people were but I can say that all the performances were great and Payne’s writing brings out not only the comedy, but the heart-wrenching moments of emotional truth. Great review my dude.

    • Thanks man. Yeah, it really registered with me. I think it’s going to connect with a lot of people, and its a lock come awards season, for a lot of categories.

      I plan to swing back over to your blog tonight to comment on your reviews. I read ’em all, just didn’t post up thoughts…

  2. It’s a wonderful portrait of all the facets of life… sorrow, joy, love, loss, friendship, kinship, it’s a very emotionally rich film.

    My sentiment exactly. This is about facing our grief by facing ourselves and by finding solace and comfort in our times of distress. Matt, and Payne too, face emotional pain head-on and come out the other side intact. In fact, Matt’s more whole by the end of the film by virtue of his experiences.

    For my money, Clooney really works like gangbusters here; he’s so often cast as type-A, can-do figures that seeing him constantly on the back foot felt refreshing. And he sells it well, too, as he plays another one of Payne’s lost and adrift middle-age American men. But I think Woodley really steals the show with her portrayal of Alexandra, and if the Academy knows what’s up they’ll throw a little Oscar love her way. She deserves it.

    Rock-solid review, Dan.

    • Thanks man, yeah.

      I think it really really hit it out of the park. From what I hear, Clooney’s a lock for a nom hopefully Woodley will get some too. She was amazing.

      You make a good point about Matt being more whole at the end, he is. You’re right. An illustration of “Pain heals”, I guess. It’s a great journey though. So funny, very thought provoking. I thought it was excellent…

  3. Great review, man. I don’t agree entirely — I thought it was good, not great — but you sure provide a strong argument otherwise. Definitely a lot of strong performances, especially from Clooney, but I thought 50/50 did a better job at simultaneously tugging the heartstrings and bringing the laughs.

    • Thanks Eric! Nice compliment.

      I’d flip those two… Even though I liked 50/50 a lot. I don’t know why. I think the humor felt more organic, here? The setting? Clooney? Probably Payne was a big factor.

      Whatever it was, this one drew the +s out of me, and I’m not sure 50/50 did. I know it didn’t get two, that’s for sure.

      That was one of the years best too though.

    • Agreed. I’m not too attached to it for Best Picture *yet* until I see who its up against, I’m just rooting for Woodley bigtime, because I thought she was phenomenal. 100% convincing.

      But you’re right. Beautiful is the operative word. It was a great movie.

  4. Thank you for this review Dan. I realized reading it that I have seen none of the Alexander Payne works you mentioned and find myself really wanting to see it. Too bad it is not playing in my area anytime soon.

    I will be watching for this one during Awards season.

    • Well… in the meantime man, if you haven’t seen them? I recommend “Sideways” in the highest possible way, “Election” very highly, and I would say “About Schmidt” is probably more limited in its appeal, but if that’s the easiest one for you to get to, you might enjoy it, but you HAVE to watch it all the way through. It finds its worth in the last few minutes…

      On the “Descendants”? Yeah, its going to make some noise.

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  6. Finally saw this last night. Quite possibly film of the year, definitely best review of the year. Emotionally charged with lasting after effects. Robert Forster stole my heart. Rock solid, old school. When he walked up to that kid and justifiably told him “I’m going to hit you now” well that was my Old Man. His hospital farewell scene was better and more real than Clooney’s. As for Shailene Woodley? Well “a new penny shines the brightest”. We’ll see. The land vote scene was Clooney’s moment. Here he was worried about failing his kids, his wife and everyone and he stood up to be the right man for now and generations to come. Strong “deeper meaning” stuff. Great flik, great review.

    • Thank you, thank you.

      On the penny comment. I hope she does keep her “Shine”, I was impressed.

      That Forster moment was hysterical. The entire follow up in the car, too.

      Glad you liked it, I pretty much climbed up on the soapbox for this one, would hate for people to finally see it and be like “Blah.”

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