Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges
Directed by: Alexander Payne (“Sideways”)
Written by: Alexander Payne (“Sideways”), Nat Faxon (debut), Jim Rash (debut)
With the beautiful scenery of Hawaii as backdrop, Matt King (George Clooney) describes how people assume just because he lives in the island paradise, he is on vacation all the time. Truth is, he hasn’t golfed in years and his problems are no different than anyone living on the mainland. Although his problems are plentiful, none is greater than struggling to care for his comatose wife. This crisis becomes the center of “The Descendants,” a story about a father struggling to hold onto everything, including his family.
After his wife is left gravely injured in a boating accident, Matt is thrust into taking care of his two daughters; the younger Scottie (Amara Miller) who is lost without her mother, and the older Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) who is off to college and acting out against everyone. As Matt pries further into why Alexandra is so mad at her mother, he discovers that his wife might have been cheating on him. While trying to find out information on the man who slept with his wife, Matt must also deal with pressure from his extended family as he negotiates a deal to sell a huge mass of land that was bequeathed to his family from their Hawaiian ancestors.
Clooney is brilliant in his role, but what else is new? It’s truly astonishing how effortless Clooney emotes and delivers his lines with such great personality and wit. He will without question carry on his tradition of bi-annual acting Oscar nominations with his performance. For the supporting roles, director Alexander Payne decided to fill out the rest of his cast with a melting pot of veteran and novice actors. While every cast member does a really great job, none are better than Woodley. Best known for her role on the ABC Family show “The Secret Life of The American Teenager,” Woodley plays the role of a foul-mouthed rebellious teenager to perfection. Although frustrated with her father for numerous reasons, her character Alexandra slowly grasps the situation at hand and attempts to mature, something that Woodley approaches at the level of a far more experienced actor.
After a seven-year absence, Payne returns with one of his more accessible films to date. The script he co-wrote is darkly funny with some very devastating one-liners that are delivered with perfection by Clooney. A good portion of the comedy also comes from Alexandra’s dopey free-spirit friend Sid, played by newcomer and Austin,Texas native Nick Krause. Although Payne does a good job at balancing comedy and drama, the film skews far more dramatically than one might think. This happens to be a great thing, as the more dramatic scenes are among the best in the film.
While the final act of the film is just a touch predictable, it carries extreme power. Anchored by a stellar performance from one of the most consistent actors in Hollywood, “The Descendants” is a fantastic and sometimes heartbreaking portrayal of a father struggling with responsibilities he’s not prepared for and trying to confront and make peace with the past.