Watching George Clooney in THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014) earlier this month reminded me that I still hadn’t seen THE DESCENDANTS (2011), the film in which Clooney was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor. So, I remedied this by catching THE DESCENDANTS (2011) on Blu-ray the other day.
THE DESCENDANTS takes place in Hawaii, and right off the bat I could tell I was going to enjoy this Oscar winning screenplay by director Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash, based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, as in an opening voice-over, Clooney says that just because he lives in Hawaii people think his life is a paradise, free from family problems, sickness, and daily angst, but obviously that’s not true, as he suffers from the same day to day issues as the rest of us.
Lawyer Matt King’s (George Clooney) current woe is that his wife Elizabeth is in a coma, a victim of a boating accident. Matt works attorney’s hours, and he’s never been close to his kids, but now he must care for his young daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) and teen daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) on his own, and since they are both volatile personalities with foul mouths and attitudes to boot, Matt has his hands full.
Matt and his extended family also own a huge amount of land on the island of Kaua’i, land that they plan to sell for development. Since Matt is the sole trustee of the family trust, it’s his name that’s in the news, and his decision to sell is not a popular one among the islanders.
When the doctors tell Matt that his wife will not survive, and that she will be taken off life support, he tells his daughters and his family and friends so they can say their good-byes, prompting an upset Alexandra to tell her father that her mother was having an affair, which drives Matt to search for the man she was having an affair with.
THE DESCENDANTS follows Matt’s attempts to work things out with his daughters while handling the news that his soon to be dead wife was having an affair. While this may sound gloomy and depressing, it really isn’t. The film has a quirky likeable style, and these dark plot points merely serve as a backdrop to our getting to know Matt and his daughters.
As I said earlier, Clooney was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor, and deservedly so. He’s great here, and it just might be my favorite George Clooney performance. The last film where I enjoyed him as much as this was in the Coen Brothers’ O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (2000) where he delivered a hilarious over-the-top performance as goofy escaped convict Everett McGill. Since Matt King is a much more three-dimensional character than Everett McGill, Clooney’s performance here is all the more satisfying.
I often find that Clooney’s roles tend to struggle generating emotions. They’re intellectually interesting, but they don’t tug at your heart. That’s not the case here.
He gives Matt a vulnerability that is instantly likeable. When he struggles with his daughters, he is so sincere in the way he deals with them, being as honest and forthright as possible about his own weaknesses and shortcomings. It makes him a very sympathetic character.
Clooney also gives Matt a decent dose of idiosyncrasies. When he’s on the prowl searching for the man who had an affair with his wife, he’s almost comical. His reaction, for example, when he sees the guy for the first time as he jogs past him is very funny. Clooney seems to excel at playing quirky characters, and I wish he’d do it more often.
He’s helped along by a solid supporting cast. Both Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller are excellent as his two daughters, Alexandra and Scottie. Even better is Nick Krause as Alexandra’s boyfriend Sid. Sid is another quirky character who livens up this film and keeps it from being dragged down by its depressing subject matter.
Sid enjoys some of the better moments in the movie. The scene where Matt’s father-in-law Scott (Robert Forster) punches Sid in the face is a laugh-out-loud moment, and later, when Scott calls Matt an unfit husband who wasn’t there for his daughter, it’s Sid who steps up to Matt’s defense.
Speaking of Robert Forster, he’s excellent as Matt’s father-in-law Scott. He appears in several of the more emotional scenes in the movie. Beau Bridges is also on hand as one of the King clan, Cousin Hugh, one of the many cousins in Matt’s family. Bridges makes the most of his few scenes, coming off like a cross between Ozzy Osborne and Jeb Bush.
Matthew Lillard is very good as the spineless Brian Speer, the man who Matt’s wife had the affair with, and Judy Greer, who played Carrie’s teacher, Ms. Desjardin in the remake of CARRIE (2013), is also memorable as Speer’s wife Julie. The scene where she comes to the hospital to “forgive” the comatose Elizabeth provides Clooney with yet another priceless quirky moment when he has to interrupt her ramblings.
As good as the cast is, the Oscar-winning script by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash is even better. It’s filled with sincere witty dialogue, humorous and painful moments alike, characters that I cared about, and a pacing that kept me interested throughout.
THE DESCENDANTS was directed by Alexander Payne, and he did a bang-up job. The film reminded me somewhat of one of Payne’s earlier efforts, SIDEWAYS (2004). Payne is nominated again this year for the Best Director Oscar for the movie NEBRASKA (2013) starring Bruce Dern, who’s also up for an Oscar for Best Actor.
THE DESCENDANTS is a rewarding film experience that highlights one man’s realization that he hasn’t been there for his family, as he is forced into caring for his two daughters while his comatose wife lies dying in a hospital bed. It contains a great performance by George Clooney and a refreshing thoroughly satisfying script.
I highly recommend it.