BRIEFLY: The Descendants is one of the best films of the year. Without a doubt its greatest moments surpass anything else at the multiplex. The acting is taut, but refreshingly realistic as we come to not only know the characters but identify so greatly with them that we become them. Indeed, we feel what they feel even in the most subtle moments. Though the film’s opening smolders with a clumsy voiceover and sloppy pacing, it finds its groove and stays there for the remainder of the film. Undoubtedly, The Descendants will garner some serious Oscar gold, but might also find itself walking away with the Hollywood Big Kahuna—Best Picture.
DETAILED REVIEW: George Clooney is one of those mysterious men who just happens to have “it.” What “it” is is entirely a different question, but there’s no question—he has “it.” He is like the acting equivalent to a Big Mac and fries. His films are always successful sans Batman & Robin. He has triumphed genres, nearly everyone (I’m still waiting for him to be in horror—Scream 5 maybe?) while also managing to be the GQ cover boy we all aspire to be.
In The Descendants though, Clooney gives us quite possibly his best performance filled to overflowing with nuances so subtle yet tactile that you might feel like you’re watching “real” people go through “real” situations. The Descendants is less a representation of reality as it seemingly is reality itself. And no not the reality we see on VH1, but rather the reality we see in each other—at school, Wal-mart, etc. At the center of this film that mirrors the real world (not the MTV version) is Clooney, whose emotional core is the literal center of a film shrouded in the chaotic elements of everyday life.
The film takes place in Hawaii, where Matt King (George Clooney) and his family try to pick up the pieces while his wife is under a coma. At the same time, Matt (what a great name—right?) is the primary descendant of a tract of land his family has inherited for centuries. His family wants him to sell the land—and Matt’s okay with that, but finds that this decision, coupled with his wife’s condition, is far too complicated for him to bear.
Matt surrounds himself with his daughters Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandria (Shailene Woodley) as his wife nears the inevitability of death. His relationship with each of them is dysfunctional and disconnected, which he hopes he can mend. Soon though, as life itself usually yields, more complications ensue, including finding out his wife was cheating on him prior to her accident.
Though the film has every excuse to swirl out of control into straight shtick comedy it doesn’t. Conversely the movie could pour on the “mush,” transforming it into a Rachel McAdams love tragedy. Nonetheless, director Alexander Payne maintains a healthy balance between humor and heartbreak as we find ourselves laughing through tears.
Though Clooney’s acting here is certainly the flagship performance, it’s Shaileen Woodley (The Secret Life of the American Teenager), whose performance might actually be the most memorable. Indeed, Woodley is on the brink of a career explosion that could be on the same level as current “it” girl Emma Stone. Woodley does this thing with her eyes (Not like Tyra’s made-up term “Smizing”) that actually communicates with the audience. Her eyes whisper words that even a mouth couldn’t muster.
Though the title The Descendants refers to the land inherited by King and his family, it could also be linked to Matt’s family as they are the ones left with suffering. Each of them has to both move on and live on, as offspring having inherited a dire situation—the death of their mother and wife.
In the end, The Descendants ends with what some will call a “happy ending.” However I think its conclusion is more explicit about the theme of the movie: that life goes on, rather than being simply happy or sad. This ambiguity actually is the resolution itself. Life moves on, the Sun comes out tomorrow, and yes hope never dies. Clooney and his daughters do what we all would do in similar circumstances by picking up the pieces and trying to move not only on, but up. Don’t miss this movie. It may not be the “feel good movie of the year,” but it is certainly the “feel right” one.