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Movie Review: Alexander Payne's "The Descendants"


The Descendants is a funny, well acted, and fantastically directed film by the great Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt). This is the type of movie that a majority of critics will eat up around Oscar time- and the praise that it‘s getting is well deserved. Much like Payne’s other films, The Descendants is a realistic character driven drama, and at times, doesn’t even seem scripted. George Clooney stars as Matt King, a rich landowner living in Hawaii who is disconnected from his family, and he and his two daughters are brought together again when a boating accident leaves his wife in a coma. The doctors are unsure whether she’ll make it through or not, so they inform King to make sure that her family and friends are aware of the situation so that they can say goodbye to her if worse comes to worse. Things get worse for King learns from his older daughter Alexandra that his wife had been cheating on him.

The great thing about The Descendants, along with other Alexander Payne movies, is that it remains realistic and down to earth, while also keeping a hint of  humor in the mix so that things don’t get too dreary. The themes that Payne deals with often delve into finding meaning in life in a difficult situation, and The Descendants, About Schmidt, and Sideways could almost be put into a trilogy as spiritual successors to one another. In About Schmidt, a man is faced with the end of his days, and looks for any meaning in his life at all; for any impact that he has left. In Sideways, a man who seems to fail at achieving his dreams consistently, must find meaning in his own life in order to keep going and to fight on through adversity. And finally, The Descendants is about a man who faces a life or death situation, and as a result, finds new meaning in his life by regaining connection to his family in multiple ways.

Without turning this review into either a complete textbook analysis, or an Alexander Payne fangirl article, I’ll get onto the movie itself. The cast isn’t completely star studded besides Clooney, but they all hold their own on screen with him. King’s wife, who is in a coma, turns out to be the antagonist. There is so much that builds up between the main characters and her, and as an audience member, we know that there isn’t a whole lot that can even be resolved. This tension and bottled frustration that builds throughout the film as the King family learns more, and grow together builds up towards a confrontation at the end which is truly gripping and memorable.

Watching this movie really makes you feel as if you’re in this beyond difficult situation with these characters, and that’s what I loved about it. You’re in the thick of it with them, and see these people grow, connect, and truly become a family as a result of a tragedy.

In all honesty, I couldn’t find much to dislike about The Descendants. The characters are well written, and they are all far from perfect people. The dialogue never becomes melodramatic, and Payne gives it a good sense of humor. If these type of bittersweet dramas are your thing (and they are definitely mine) there’s a good chance that The Descendants will be one of your favorite films of 2011.

The Verdict: Must See!

Some Afterthoughts: George Clooney has to be one of the most consistent actors in Hollywood right about now. I can think of multiple films off the top of my head that he has been in in the past few years that have been absolutely great.

Examples: Up in the Air, The American, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Burn After Reading, and Michael Clayton just to name some of them.