MOVIE REVIEW: The Descendants


There are a few magical times in movie history when a great actor goes against what he is known for or does best and gives a performance of a completely different range and capability than previously thought of them.  I'm not talking about movie stars that get dirtied up or ugly to play odd parts.  That's all window-dressing.  I mean showing a completely different level of emotion and character than previously seen.  My personal favorite example is when renowned Hollywood tough guy Humphrey Bogart played the hopelessly broken and romantic Rick Blaine in the great Casablanca in 1943

It was such a departure that it surprised audiences and changed his career.  It had to be seen to be believed. As it stands right now, that's what The Descendants is for George Clooney.  Even more remarkable is that you can say this is Clooney's third piece of magic.  Last year, when I reviewed him in The American, I talked about how George's signature charm, charisma, and wit have made him the Cary Grant of our generation.  I said that a little piece of that movie star recipe comes out in every role he plays, even to the point that it was necessary for his success and the movie's success.  Other than in The American and his Oscar-winning supporting turn in Syrianna, we always see that hint of his Cary Grant-ness.

In the new release The Descendants, we are luckily granted the complete departure, to the level of Bogart's in Casablanca, from George Clooney.  In echoing other critics, this is truly the performance of his career, even better than Syrianna.  Full of parental pride, personal flaws, raw emotion, and much more- it's the best he's ever been.  Hand him the Best Actor Academy Award right now.

Clooney plays Matt King, a well-off middle-aged Honolulu lawyer descended from Hawaiian royalty and white missionaries.  He is the sole trustee of the King family's expiring ancestral claim of 25,000 acres of untouched oceanfront beauty on the garden island of Kaua'i.  The impending sale of that land will make his "Haole" family rich for generations, but that doesn't matter right now.  Matt King's Hawaiian paradise right now is the bleak ICU wing of the hospital where his comatose wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) lays, dying slowly with each passing day since a boating accident.

Left alone as the "back-up parent" to two daughters he doesn't know anymore is not something he's ready for, let alone the possibility of losing his wife altogether.  One daughter is 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller, in her film debut), who's at the age of swearing and bullying at school and home where parenting is going to be needed.  Matt's oldest daughter is 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley, a long way from ABC Family's The Secret Life of an American Teenager) who was shipped by Elizabeth and Matt to a boarding school on the Big Island for her alcohol abuse and self-destructive behavior.  Fearing the worst, Matt brings Alex home to Oahu to help with Scottie and for the likelihood that she and her sister may have to say goodbye to her dying mother.  What makes all of that worse (no spoiler, this reveal makes the trailers), is that Matt learns that Elizabeth was cheating on him and on the verge of requesting a divorce.  Ouch.

Directed by Alexander Payne (in his first effort since 2004's quirky and brilliant Sideways) and written by Payne and former Groundlings sketch comedy grads Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, The Descendants delicately steps in and out of both the drama and comedy paths.  Its trailer markets it like some kind of quirky Modern Family-ish comedy set in Hawaii.  The comedic elements are certainly there (you're going to love Alex's dim-witted friend Sid, played by Nick Krause), but if you just read what I wrote and follow where the story is going, the dramatic elements of family difficulties, anger, blame, mortality, grief, regret, and loss take over.  For Payne to achieve that blend in the way he did in

The Descendants is absolutely remarkable.  As I said before, this is the best George Clooney has ever been, but he's not alone.  70's tough guy relic Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) nails the gruff sensibilities of Matt's proud father-in-law in a really nice part for him.  You would never think little Amara Miller was a first-timer, but she does a fantastic job.  The breakthrough next to Clooney is Shailene Woodley.  She delivers a spirited knockout of a performance as the troubled Alex, who takes it upon herself to help her father track down the other man.  Having already won the award from the National Board of Review, expect Woodley vying beside Viola Davis from The Help for front-runner attention as the Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars in February.

While bleak and realistic in its setting, cinematographer Pheldon Papamichael never puts paradise too far away, yet avoids all semblance of stereotype hula girls and surfing.  The same goes for the local artists filling the soundtrack, skipping Elvis-like cheesiness.  Across the board, The Descendants is incredibly well-executed with passion, beauty, and care.  As it stands for me on December 10th, this is the best movie I've seen this year.  I know some incredible award contenders are coming, particularly Steven Spielberg's War Horse and the 9/11 drama Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, but, for me, they're going to have to beat The Descendants at this point.

LESSON #1: FIRST TIME SINGLE PARENTS-- With Elizabeth in a coma, Matt has to become the sole parent, a role he is lost and unprepared for.  He has a lot of corrections and focusing to do and hard decisions to make, but can't help but be distracted by the truth about his wife, her care at the hospital, and the big impending land deal.  Those who do it, no matter the circumstances that got them there, know that being a single parent is one of the hardest jobs there is.  Character-building isn't even the start.

LESSON #2: WHAT WE INHERIT IN LIFE-- The title of this film refers to and frames the family history of the King family, which is a prominently-connected side story in The Descendants.  "Haole" or not, they are technically Hawaiian royalty, who stand to inherit millions of dollars with the sale of their land holdings.  Matt, as the latest in a 150+ year line of family trustees, has the power to make that happen.  The funny thing is, just as in real life, we, and the Kings, learn that we inherit a great deal more than just name, money, and property in our families.  We inherit family values, character traits, behaviors, problems, and the dual responsibility to live up to those who came before us and help guide the ones who will come after us.

LESSON #3: SPEAKING YOUR PEACE-- You cannot help but watch The Descendents and put yourself in Matt King's shoes for the many tough spots he's put in.  What truths do you tell young daughters who look up to their mother?  What do you tell her proud father or her friends?  What would you say to the man who's having an affair with your wife?  What can you even say to your wife in all of that when she can't answer back and maybe won't ever answer back?  There are moments like that throughout the film where characters need to speak their pace, whether that peace is good news, bad news, loving support, hurtful truth, assertiveness, or even the things you shouldn't say and, therefore, leave at peace.