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Descendants, The

Reviewed By Brett Gallman
Posted 11/30/11 19:23:09

"A functioning dysfunctional family."
5 stars (Awesome)

So many dysfunctional family dramas are about how far apart we can be from each other; ďThe Descendants,Ē however, reveals how close we can be without ever really knowing it. Alexander Payne arranges a cast of characters here that often clash--it is a tale of death, loss, and infidelity, after all, so it should come as no surprise that they could find themselves in situations that might typically involve emotional moments dialed up to 11. Payne instead delivers something a little bit more zesty and authentic, however, as we (along with the characters themselves) learn that, hey, maybe everyone isnít so bad after all--including themselves.

That starts with the comatose wife (Patricia Hastie) at the center of the story; after a fateful boating accident, she winds up in a vegetative state, leaving her husband, Matt (George Clooney), to take care of their two daughters. Scottie (Amara Miller) is ten years old, and itís been years since Matt kept her on his own; on the other hand, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) is the rebellious 17 year old thatís been dumped off to boarding school. When the three reunite, the expected combustion is evident--Alex is resentful and subtly aghast to discover that Scottie is a bit of an oddball, while Matt is overwhelmed by it all.

His most difficult moment comes when he has to level with Alex about her motherís impending death. This news comes while sheís swimming in the pool, and her only response is to submerge herself in anguish. Itís an incredibly precise, key early moment in the film, as, when she finally surfaces, sheís managed to somewhat shed her resentment. She isnít able to completely unload, though, until she drops a bomb of her own: it turns out that her mom was cheating on her father, who is obviously stunned by the news.

But heís more intrigued, so he sets off (along with Alex, Scottie, and Alexís dopey boyfriend) to discover the identity of his wifeís lover, all the while informing his family of her failing condition. Oh, and, to top it all off, heís the executor of a trust fund that has a pending decision on the sale of some land that will leave his family set for life. This is where the film derives its title, as he and his cousins are the titular descendants who have lived off the wealth of their ancestors for decades.

So, really, ďThe DescendantsĒ sounds like a collection of privileged Hawaiians to whom it may be hard to relate; however, this notion is deflated from the outset, when Mattís opening narration discusses how even paradise can be beset with cloudiness. Even on this level, we find expectations thwarted, and Mattís emotional journey is full of these sort of discoveries. Along with him, we meet his cantankerous father in law (Robert Forster), who steals both of his scenes; we cheer when he punches Alexís oblivious boyfriend (Nick Krause) right in the face, but we empathize even more when he spends his last moments with his daughter.

Likewise, that idiot boyfriend actually has some perceptiveness once Matt decides to give him a chance; the film is a succession of these sort of moments, as we come to learn that this world is populated by good people who sometimes do bad things. Alex is a vulgar, foul-mouthed daughter, but Iíll be damned if she isnít charmingly so thanks to Woodley; likewise, the adulterous man (Matthew Lillard) who has a wife and kids of his own, seems like heíd be a bit of a sleazebag, and he isnít. Even one of Mattís cousins (Beau Bridges) is a chilled out surfer type thatís eventually forced into a tough spot involving the land deal. He has to make a decision to oppose Matt, but we can understand why.

This is not to say that moments of anger and sadness arenít peppered in; Payne isnít oblivious to these inevitable emotions, and some of the filmís most powerful moments are driven by them. When Matt gets time alone to speak to his comatose wife, he lays out his raw frustrations and anger, but it never comes across as bitter since ďThe DescendantsĒ isnít a bitter film. Itís a film that refutes bitterness and its uselessness and shows that healing comes in getting past it.

Laughter doesnít hurt either, and the film trades in a mopey sogginess for a bouncy ukelele backbeat and the gorgeously photographed landscape inhabited by fantastic characters. Clooney leads the charge--he radiates both confidence and vulnerability all at once, but itís his level-headedness that makes him the calm at the center of the storm. Surrounded by an equally impressive ensemble thatís as well-realized as any film this year, heís the best guy in a sea of good guys, and I enjoyed watching him navigate those waters. When the script finds a way to merge the land-deal plot with Mattís personal conflict, itís not so much a clever hook as much as a confirmation of how much good will heís built up. His eventual decision could come off as selfish and petulant, but it doesnít.

If every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, ďDescendantsĒ shows that some are only so despite themselves. In fact, the ease with which Matt essentially glides into his role as a father speaks to the deftness of Payneís film, which keenly observes how we move through tragedy to get to a place where we can just enjoy each otherís company in complete silence.

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