Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Different Sort of Clooney: The Descendants Review

     Alexander Payne's films are divisive, quirky, and hit-or-miss. It's been years since I've seen Election, but it didn't particularly leave an impression on my one way or the other. 2004's About Schmidt was the sort of sad, slow slog that turns many viewers off when thinking of independent pictures with critical acclaim. 2002's Sideways, on the other hand, is an incredible story of hope, friendship, and wine that would easily fit on the list of my favorite films ever. It's been seven years since that wonderful journey of Miles and Jack in the Santa Ynez Valley wine country, and Payne's newest film--The Descendants--had very high expectations. Fortunately, it's more Sideways than Schmidt. George Clooney's newest is a tale that is sometimes funny, sometimes beautiful and always sad and uncomfortable. It's the anti-Transformers, a film that is, above all, real.
     A film starring George Clooney as a father raising his cute family on the beautiful beaches and hills of Hawaii? Sounds like a good, safe time. Luckily, the film isn't just that. It begins with a great shot of Matt King (Clooney)'s wife smiling and basking in the tropical sun as she rides a watercraft across the blue sea. It's the last time we'll see her in a non-vegetative state. You see, Mrs. King is a thrill seeker, and her latest endeavor had a major cost: her livelihood. She's in a coma, and Matt must take the reigns and learn to raise two teenage girls alone. He's a self-admitted "back-up parent," and really has no clue how to deal with the seemingly crazy 10-year-old Scottie, a rambunctious ball of energy, or the 17-year-old Alex, who has recently started to dabble in drinking and drugs in an act of rebellion.
     Matt's stress only starts here: his family can be traced back decades and decades in the lovely land of Hawaii, back to some of the original land owners. His family (mostly cousins) holds a vast landscape of untouched beaches and turquoise waters that many of them want to sell for millions of dollars. Although the 25,000 acres are owned by his entire family, for unlucky reasons Matt is the sole trustee. He is the one to make the final decision. Hotels and golf courses would be built immediately, if he sells. Obviously, most of the population on this particular island in Hawaii doesn't want the land deal to go through--they are protective of their virgin views, and a Donald Trump-like entity willing to destroy the natural beauty with condos, roads and thousands of tourists is the last thing in the world that would be beneficial.
    Matt's luck worsens when he realizes that his wife has been having an affair. It's through all of these horrible events in Matt's life that we realize there are no simple answers to the difficult events that life throws at us. Clooney is great in this part, a much different turn than his usual smiling, cocky and slick roles where he has no real problems. Everything is connected in complex ways: his wife's growing unhappiness before her unfortunate accident, his children (particularly Alex) coming to grips with difficult decisions and possibly losing a parent, the land deal which would ruin an incredible landscape but make a select few tens of millions of dollars, and his wife's lover, a man that's important in every aspect of the film. We follow this journey with Clooney, through every action, facial expression and thought. He's never been better.
     We care about the characters in The Descendants. Their problems might echo some of ours, but even if they don't it's easy to relate to them. That's what director Alexander Payne is great at, as we've seen throughout all of his films: thoughtful, realistic characters that deal with problems in a way in which you or I might. We understand the decisions that the King family makes, even if some of them are not agreeable. And even if our descendants, in the coming years and generations to come, face much bigger and different problems, we can only hope they take them head on with the same type of thoughtful poise and passion as the characters in Payne's films.     (A-)

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