The Descendants (****)


What does it mean to be a family?  What does it mean to be Hawaiian?  A father?  A husband?  How does one deal with tragedy?  How does one act morally?  Do we have a responsibility to those who have come before us?  Alexander Payne tackles these questions and more in his 5th film ‘The Descendants’, a dramedy about no less than life itself and what we both choose to take with us and what we leave behind.  Ladies and gentlemen…Payne is 5 for 5 with this borderline masterpiece.  This is his best work to date, and that’s really saying something, considering how highly I think of both ‘About Schmidt’ and ‘Election’.  Few filmmakers working today have the deft touch that Payne has for mixing comedy and drama, and here he shows it off like never before.  Never has his topic been more serious, but Payne still perfectly mixes the smiles with the tears…and here you will undoubtedly have both.  His choice of George Clooney to star is both out of the box thinking and perfect casting, as Clooney absolutely owns this role as a parent struggling to understand his children and deserves every nomination or award he’ll receive this year, and there will be quite a few.  The entire cast is great (including Shailene Woodley, Robert Forster, and Judy Greer in nomination worthy parts), and the writing is as good as anything we’ve seen from Payne before.  What really sets him apart this time is his direction.  This could be the year that he takes home the Best Director Oscar that’s alluded him to date he’s that good.  No one else has ever framed Hawaii in this sort of light before.  It’s a magnificent job all around.  I couldn’t agree more with my colleague John Foote.  This is easily one of the best films of the year.

Matt King (Clooney) is at a defining moment in his life.  A lawyer in Hawaii that’s descended from a relative of King Kamehameha, he’s come to a crossroads.  His family owns a valuable piece of land on one of the islands, and as the family member in charge of the trust, it’s more or less up to him if they’re going to be selling the land or keeping it unspoiled, as many in the state prefer.  At the same time (as if this isn’t enough to have on his mind), his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) was recently in a boating accident and is in a coma with little hope of recovery.  This has him caring for his daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) for the first time.  He also has a troubled daughter Alexandra (Woodley) that’s away at boarding school.  When Alexandra reveals that Elizabeth was cheating on Matt, he begins questioning his relationship and wondering what his future is going to look like.  At the same time, he has to go around to his family (including her father, played by Forster) and friends telling them about Elizabeth’s condition and trying to track down the man (Matthew Lillard) she was sleeping with.  He packs up his daughters and Alexandra’s boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) and sets off on this journey around Hawaii.  Somehow, this all leads him closer to his two daughters.  It sounds kind of soap opera-like when written down, but when executed on the screen, it’s absolutely captivating and flawless.

This is one of the best ensembles of the year, and I imagine SAG will be honoring them very soon.  It’s buoyed by one of George Clooney’s very best performances ever.  I may slightly prefer ‘Up in the Air’, both as a film and in Clooney’s work, but that’s just saying that this is another piece of brilliance on both counts.  I think Clooney is the one to beat for the Oscar now.  Never before has he been this vulnerable.  It’s not the type of role you normally associate with him, but after watching the film, I don’t know that I could have seen anyone else pull it off like this.  An Academy Award nomination is guaranteed.  As if Clooney wasn’t outstanding already, Shailene Woodley almost matches him as his feee spirited daughter.  She’s definitely deserving of an Oscar nod as well.  She has some of the strongest emotional beats of the film, and she hits every single one of them perfectly.  Also doing nomination worthy work in smaller parts are Robert Forster as Matt’s father in law and Judy Greer as the wife of the man Matt’s wife was sleeping with.  They both only have a few scenes, but they make them count, especially in their final scenes, where they really bring home the emotion.  The supporting turns by Krause and Miller are good as well.  Beau Bridges is solid in a small part too, but perhaps the most surprising thing is how good Matthew Lillard is.  He’s oddly affecting and his confrontation with Clooney is powerful and turns out differently than anyone would expect.  This is a powerhouse cast and they all pull their weight.  Expect multiple citations for them.

What can I say about Alexander Payne?  He’s perfect here, and deserves to take home Oscars for both Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.  His writing (usually with Jim Taylor, who just co-produces this time around) has always been exceptional, and that’s again the case here with the script he co-wrote with Nat Faxson and Jim Rash (based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings), but his direction is a step up this time around, and if he wasn’t in the company of the elites before, he is now.  He gives us a look at Hawaii that’s incredibly unique and fits the film like a glove, complete with nomination worthy cinematography from Phedon Papmichael.  The very first scene is absolutely brilliant, tying in a voice-over by Clooney about how residents in Hawaii don’t automatically have an ideal life with visuals of the parts of the state we usually don’t see.  There’s also a scene with Matt and his family looking at the land that he owns that takes your breath away.  Payne is even able to take important scenes and play them out with little or no dialogue but the same effectiveness of his more verbose scenes.  Especially noteworthy there is how Scottie deals with the news about her mother.  Rarely this year have I seen a writer-director own his craft as fully as Payne does here.  It’s a masterwork, plain and simple.

I fully expect this to be one of the more nominated films of 2011 when the Academy announces its nominees in a few months.  Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Adapted Screenplay are absolute locks.  I think  Woodley is very likely for Best Supporting Actress, and Best Cinematography and Film Editing are more likely than not as well.  If the Academy are really in love with the flick, they could include Robert Forster for Supporting Actor and who knows…maybe even Judy Greer as a second Supporting Actress nod.  Whatever the case may be, every Oscar nomination (and potential win) that the film receives is well deserved.

‘The Descendants’ may actually be the best film of the year.  I’m not certain at this point, but it’s definitely in my top 3 right now.  It’s undoubtedly Alexander Payne’s best film to date, outstanding on every level.  By the time the final scene comes around (a seemingly throwaway family shot that’s actually one of the most important moments in the film), you’ll have tears in your eyes but also have fully enjoyed yourself too.  Few films can boast that.  This film can boast about being one of the best works of 2011.  It’s Alexander Payne at his best.  You owe it to yourself to see this movie.

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