Imagine that in place of the dashing silver-gray hair, there is a long dark and wavy mullet. Instead of a long resume of quality films, cheesy episodes of Roseanne and The Facts of Life. Don’t know who I’m talking about? Well, George Clooney (The Ides of March) may be grateful for that. The man, who early in his career seemed destined for the “whatever happened to” file, has transformed into a great talent, on and off screen. I don’t usually tear up for much of what Hollywood has to offer these days but with The Descendants, Clooney and a talented cast of support players, caused me to ask myself, “What is this salty discharge coming from my eyes?”
Matt King is a successful lawyer from a prominent Hawaiian family, but life throws him a bitch of a curve ball when his wife, Elizabeth, falls into a coma after a boating accident. Matt goes from back-up parent to single dad overnight, and has to try and figure out how to relate to his 10-year-old (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old (Shailene Woodley, The Secret Life of the American Teenager) daughters, after years of distance and neglect. Finding out that his comatose wife had been having an affair, Matt and his family embark on a mission to find his wife’s lover so that he too can say goodbye. But the trip turns into so much more, as this strange quest unites the King family in ways they never were before.
I can’t imagine anyone else in the role of Matt King, there aren’t too many actors that can do desperate and awkward as brilliantly as George Clooney. It’s amazing how someone who seems so suave and confident in his real existence can portray such utter dorkiness so believably. This performance by Clooney was definitely worthy of an Academy Award. Clooney reacts to the possibility of losing his wife in ways that we all can relate to, with that feeling of being uncomfortable in one’s own skin because we’d rather be anyone else at that moment, free and clear from dealing with the fear and pain that death leaves in its wake. Matt is a flawed character of the best kind, he is a likeable chap who has made mistakes, and after coming to terms with them, tries his darndest to right the ship.
Director Alexander Payne (Sideways), uses the beautiful backdrop of Hawaii as if it were another character, one that adds a sense of serenity to the chaotic goings on in the King family. Matt has this anger towards his wife Elizabeth seething just under the surface. You get a sense that he keeps his emotions under wraps most of the time, only rarely allowing it to show itself. In one of the most intense scenes in the film, Matt confronts his comatose wife after finding out she not only cheated on him, but planned on divorcing him as well. Matt lets Elizabeth have it with both barrels as she lays there, hooked up to a respirator, unable to respond. He calls her all sorts of unseemly names and not one time does it seem wrong or out of place; in fact it seems like this is something the character not only would do but needs to do. It is cathartic for him but also safe because there would be no confrontation and he could honestly tell Elizabeth these things without inflicting the inevitable hurt his words would cause. In this same scene, Clooney leans in closely to tell his wife that she is making, and has always made, his life difficult. This seems cold and cruel but deep down I felt that it was coming from a place of pain more than it was an expression of anger. As Elizabeth lay there connected to tubes and wires, more dead than alive, Payne manages to make Matt look not only justified in his anger but empathetic as well. Then the anger is put back in its box and he calmly brings his daughters into the room to see their mother. And when Alex, angry that her mother betrayed her father, confronts Elizabeth in a fashion similar to the way her father did, with the class of any decent parent, Matt defends Elizabeth. He doesn’t want his children to harbor any bitterness towards their mother and it takes quite a bit of strength to defend a woman he himself harbors bitterness towards. This scene is so real and so uncomfortable at the same time, it feels as if we’re intruding on a very private moment that we have no business being privy to.
Clooney is surrounded by a fabulous cast of actors that bolster this film’s credentials. Some are virtual unknowns like Nick Krause and Amara Miller, who have a limited resume but come across like old pros. Shailene Woodley, with only a bit more experience, shows so much poise as she matures from an obnoxious and ungrateful teenager to a young woman who comes into her own as her mother’s health declines. These youngins are joined by veterans Robert Forster (Jackie Brown), as Matt’s belligerent father-in-law; Matthew Lillard (Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated), who is not a nice dude at all and cares more about his reputation than the pain he has caused, and Judy Greer (13 Going on 30), a great character actress who plays Lillard’s sympathetic wife. All of the pieces of this film work together in perfect harmony, thanks not only to the wonderful acting talent, but also because of writer/director Payne and his co-writers Nat Faxon and Community’s Jim Rash. Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants is one of those films that will leave a lasting impact on your movie loving psyche.
Extras include three very entertaining featurettes: “Everybody Loves George,” and really who doesn’t love this guy; “Working with Alexander,” a profile of director Payne and “Hawaiian Style,” which features the traditions and beauty of the island the film was shot on. We are also treated to the original trailer for The Descendants. Presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen Payne gives us a panoramic view of the beautiful Hawaiian landscape. The audio is in Dolby Digital 5.1 and highlights the wonderful soundtrack of traditional Hawaiian music that frames the film so well without distracting from what is happening onscreen.
The Descendants is a quirky film that gives a realistic view of normal everyday people dealing with an issue most of us will have to face one day: the death of a close family member. It also effectively handles the awkwardness we can feel with our own blood relations, who are in some cases individuals we would never chose to be friends with of our own accord. This is one of Clooney’s finest performances; he is able to show through changes in his facial expressions the internal struggles of Matt and the emotional roller coaster that he is on. In one of the most understated yet wonderful final scenes, Payne shows why he is on the very short list of great filmmakers. Instead of ending the movie in the typical and overly dramatic way Hollywood often does, Payne ends the film as if it is a new beginning for the King family and in a sense it is, one they never would have imagined had they not gone through hell and back.
It’s not enough to say Not Guilty; Simply Brilliant!
The Descendants (DVD)
2012, Fox, 115 minutes, R (2011)
VIDEO: 2.40:1 AUDIO: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, Descriptive), Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French), Dolby Digital 5.1 (Spanish) SUBTITLES: English (SDH), Spanish
EXTRAS: Featurettes ACCOMPLICES: IMDB