The Descendants

The Descendants featured image

November 18, 2011
Reviewed by Marc Glassman

The Descendants
Alexander Payne, dir. and co-script based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings
Starring George Clooney (Matt King), Shailene Woodley (Alexandra King), Nick Krause (Sid), Judy Greer (Julie Speer), Beau Bridges (Cousin Hugh), Matthew Lillard (Brian Speer), Amara Miller (Scottie King), Patricia Hastie (Elizabeth King), Robert Forster (Elizabeth’s father)

The buzz:
Every year, a select number of films that premiere at TIFF win Oscars or at least get nominations. This time around, The Descendants is occupying one of those golden spots. With audience favourite George Clooney in the lead (as he was in another TIFF/Oscar winner Up in the Air) and Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt, Election) as the director, The Descendants is getting all kinds of media support. If audiences respond, this film will be in the Academy Awards sweepstakes.

The genres:
Coming-of-age drama (for both teenager Alexandra and her dad, Matt King), comedy (because Payne can’t help himself) and romance (Clooney and his audience)

The plot:
Matt King, a descendant of the last royal Hawaiian family, comes home to take care of his young daughter Scottie after his wife Elizabeth suffers a brain injury while water-skiing off a motorboat, leaving her in a coma. When Matt finds out that Elizabeth won’t recover, he brings his teenaged daughter Alexandra back home from boarding school on another Hawaiian island to help him break the news to Elizabeth’s friends and family.

The rebellious Alexandra reveals an uncomfortable truth to Matt: Elizabeth was planning to leave him for another man, Brian Speers. She also insists on bringing her best friend Sid, a laidback, silly but decent kid, on the many family visits planned by Matt.

Matt has another major issue to deal with—the selling of the King family’s ancestral lands. The family—a huge, motley crew of entrepreneurs and investors—is waiting for Matt to lead them on the decision of who the land should be sold to: foreign or Hawaiian real estate developers.

While dealing with Elizabeth’s impending death, Matt becomes obsessed with confronting Brian Speers. After some difficulties, he and Alexandra meet Brian, a successful real estate operator, and his wife Julie—and Matt is able to privately tell Elizabeth’s lover about her medical condition. He also realizes that Speers loves his wife, not Elizabeth.

After much talk, the King family meets to decide what to do with the family land. Complicating the issue for Matt is that Brian Speers stands to profit if the favoured local bid wins. Like all the others, the Hawaiian bid would turn beautiful untouched fields rich with trees and plants and beaches, just off the Pacific Ocean, into condos, hotels and golf courses.

For the film to end properly, Matt has to resolve how to deal with the land and the fate of Elizabeth. That he does so is a given—this is a Hollywood movie—but the exact form of his decisions must be seen by the audience. A reviewer must be discreet—and conclusions are sacrosanct!

The performances:
This is Clooney’s movie: he’s the narrator of the film as well as its lead. The film wouldn’t work without his deadpan, witty and clean style—especially with his daughters and Sid. He’s fine throughout but never persuades me about the grief he feels over losing his wife.

Shailene Woodley is terrific as the teenaged Alexandra. She’s angry and attractive—a winning combination. Whether she can turn this performance into a fine adult career can’t be determined now. But she deserves a chance.

Robert Forster is amazing as Elizabeth’s hard-assed Dad, who has to handle the death of his daughter while tending to a wife stricken with Alzheimer’s. The camera still loves him after all these years.

The direction:
Alexander Payne always makes fine movies. He’s this generation’s Billy Wilder: bold, satirical, but always funny. He deserves an Oscar nomination for direction and script.

The skinny:
This is one of the best films of the year. It’s a brilliant mixture of drama and comedy, featuring a fine cast and splendid lead, set in gorgeous Hawaii. What’s not to like? Go to this movie!

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