Movie Review: The Descendants

Mike Finkelstein took a flight to Hawaii to escape all the troubles of life.  Turns out he met some people that made him realize there is no place out there that is perfect.  Here is his review of “The Descendants.”

PLOT: Matt King (George Clooney) is a very simple man with a very big responsibility: he is the descendant of Hawaiian royalty and trustee of a huge chunk of his beautiful island.  When his wife is left in a coma by a boating accident, it is up to him to figure out how to care for his two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller), as well as make the right decision concerning the land that would either make his family even richer than it already is, or keep a little bit of paradise intact.  On top of all of that, he finds out that his wife was carrying on a long term affair.

Check out the trailer:

MIKE’S REVIEW:  Alexander Payne is excellent at crafting stories about older characters in crises.  CITIZEN RUTH and ELECTION were both tremendous, but it is in the subtle, humanizing world of ABOUT SCHMIDT and SIDEWAYS where he seems to be most comfortable.  With THE DESCENDANTS, Payne has returned to that world for the third time in a row, and somehow, he has delivered yet again a funny, heartfelt, and life affirming film

George Clooney is Matt King, a man with many problems.  First off, he and all of his cousins are the descendants of Hawaiian royalty, but while he has decided to not live off any of his inheritance (a moral instilled in him by his father), most of his cousins have already blown theirs.  When they have a chance to sell the huge chunk of island land they still own for a massive payday, it is up to Matt alone as the trustee to make the final decision.  Add to that the fact that his wife just got into a major boating accident that leaves her basically brain dead.  Suddenly, Matt has to break the news to his two daughters and step up as a parent, only to be hit with the news from his oldest that his wife was cheating on him.

Clooney is very good at playing the everyman.  It seems like over the past couple of years, from UP IN THE AIR to MICHAEL CLAYTON, he is getting nominations for roles that are not exactly characters, but different offsets of his personality (usually pretty confident, somewhat defying…).  We get to see the insecure, destroyed side of George here, and while it may not be something like O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU, he draws us in with his emotion and gives us some pretty funny moments doing some ridiculous things that we wouldn’t want to admit we’d do in the same situations.

The real meat and potatoes of this movie, however, come from the Matt’s daughters.  Shailene Woodley plays older daughter Alexandra charmingly, and shows the skill level of actresses twice her age…something definitely apparent in a pretty emotional scene early on where she breaks down in her pool, and then goes toe-to-toe with her father.  Amara Miller is also adorable as Scottie, throwing off curse after curse, trying to be like her sister.  When the three finally start to come together and understand each other, you can’t help but feel that heart and soul Payne was aiming for.  Besides George getting a nomination for Best Actor, I wouldn’t be surprised if Woodley’s recognized with a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

The rest of the cast also lends some great support, with Matthew Lillard as the ‘other guy’ (the man has matured tenfold since the days of SCREAM and SCOOBY DOO) and Robert Forster as Matt’s angry and blaming father-in-law.  A special mention goes out to Nick Krause as the hysterical comic relief in the form of Alex’s friend, Sid.  The kid is stupid, and you hate him in the beginning, but by the end, he is part of the family.

THE DESCENDANTS may not be a blockbuster, but it doesn’t have to be.  Alexander Payne is in the business of creating films that tell “simple, human stories”, and he does a striking, elegant job of it (calling the nominations for Picture and Director now).  Just like SIDEWAYS and ABOUT SCHMIDT before it, the tale works on a simple, intimate level, backed with some beautiful, grounded performances by its cast, and a final, life affirming message that’ll have you leaving the theaters feeling just a bit better about life.

GRADE: A-

Mike’s LIKES:

1) GEORGE CLOONEY: What can I say?  George Clooney is George Clooney through and through.  Yes, maybe he suffers from the syndrome of “Hey! That’s George Clooney on screen!” but either way, the man plays his roles well.

2) SHAILENE WOODLEY: Woodley is a beautiful young actress, and here, she shows amazing range for one of her first lead film roles.  More Dakota Fanning than the Disney Channel group.

3) NICK KRAUSE: Krause is the full comic relief as Sid.  At first, I thought I hated the character for being so stupid, and then I realized just how good the actor was.  You absolutely hate him in the beginning, and by the end, you love him.

4) MATTHEW LILLARD: The man has matured drastically since playing Shaggy in SCOOBY DOO.  I hope he’ll have a chance to show us more in the future.

5) ROBERT FORSTER: “I’m going to hit you now.”  That line sums it all up.

Mike’s DISLIKES:

1) NONE: Just an enjoyable, heartfelt, human story throughout.

EXTRA FACTS:

1) George Clooney actually wanted to play the role of Jack in Alexander Payne’s last film, SIDEWAYS.  Payne turned him down because he wanted someone lesser known for the role.

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