Monday, December 5, 2011

The Descendants starring George Clooney

The Descendants is directed by Alexander Payne and stars George Clooney.
Lots of people go to the movies to be mindlessly entertained. They go to movies that are full of fantasy and special effects, letting the spectacle of such big-screen creations take them as far away from their own lives as possible -- hence, the meteoric career of Michael Bay.

But there are other kinds of movies. Some of these movies eschew spectacle in order to seem as realistic as possible, focusing instead on creating characters who could be actual people, not just action heroes.

The Descendants is just this kind of movie, telling the story of a dysfunctional family coping with a catastrophe that may not be as cataclysmic as an giant asteroid striking the Earth, though it is no less life-changing for the characters involved. The man at the center of this drama is Matt King, played with amazing subtlety by George Clooney.

Is there an actor with a more expressive face than George Clooney?
The set-up is this: Matt's wife has suffered an accident that renders her comatose, and Matt is forced to reckon with his two daughters as they deal with the aftermath. It turns out that Matt is like lots of men who have allowed their careers get in the way of their parenting, so that now, when he most needs to reach out to his daughters, he finds that there's some distance between them. This isn't exactly cheery stuff, I know, but the story also juxtaposes this drama with the idyllic setting of Hawaii, whose climate and history also play a large role.

It turns out that Matt's family is descended from royal Hawaiian blood, and they are beneficiaries of an astounding inheritance whose ultimate fate Matt himself has to decide in his role as trustee. Of course, there's money involved, as well as a horde of kinfolk who all have their own ideas on what to do with their inheritance. How these disparate storylines (his wife and his inheritance) play off each other gives the movie a lot of its thematic heft. We are all, after all, the products of our past.

As happens in times of crisis, long-simmering tensions boil over, as Matt attempts to hold together a family that harbors its share of secrets and slights. His oldest daughter, played with wonderful sass by Shailene Woodley, goes toe-to-toe with him, taking a certain adolescent pleasure in rubbing her father's face in unpleasantness and then seamlessly switching into the role of dutiful daughter when Matt finally decides to act on what he's learned. The youngest daughter, played by newcomer Amara Miller, brings a touching rawness to her role as the putative baby of the family, with an innocence and ignorance that serve as both burden and corrective to the machinations of her sister and dad.

The Descendants is about how these 3 people cope
with what's happened to the fourth member of their family.
Yeah, it's a comedy.
Now, all of this makes The Descendants sound like an utterly serious drama, but nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, every moment of this movie is infused with wry humor, and what could be more realistic than that? Life itself often plays out as a kind of joke (albeit a cruel one), and even the most dire situations give rise to a few chuckles.

Director Alexander Payne has given us such character-driven gems as Sideways, Election, and About Schmidt, and, for me, The Descendants is of-a-piece with those earlier films. I urge you to see it. It's one of those movies whose every moment rings true.

directed by Alexander Payne

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