Monday, April 2, 2012

Movie Monday: The Descendants

This week's movie is the 2011 drama The Descendants!

Like Drive and The Ides of March, Alexander Payne's The Descendants was a movie in 2011 I wanted to see but never got around to catching in the theaters. I've liked every film Payne has directed, and I like George Clooney, so...
The film opens with dialogue-free scene of a woman enjoying herself, clearly on a boat, with the sun shining and the wind in her hair. After that scene fades to black, we learn who that was: Elizabeth King, wife of Matt King (Clooney), who has had a very serious accident while boating. So bad, in fact, that she is now in a coma, clinging to life as her husband watches over her.

Matt King is a successful attorney, and also the controlling interest of a trust that has been handed down through his family over the years, stretching all the way back to the very beginnings of Hawaii as we know it. He has two daughters, the younger of which lives at home, with the older away at school on another island.

Matt holds on to the belief that his wife will wake up, but early on a family doctor has to tell him the terrible news: that Elizabeth's brain is so damaged that she is essentially dead already, being kept alive only by machines. As the doctor continues to talk, the full impact of this hits Matt:
Matt and his younger daughter Scottie go to retrieve Alexandra, who apparently has been getting into trouble when she was home with the family. Matt, who by his own admission has been the back-up parent, is flummoxed on how to handle Scottie, who seems to be following in her big sister's footsteps.

Turning to Alexandra for help, Matt and his daughter butt heads repeatedly, until finally the truth comes out: Elizabeth, at the time of her accident, was having an affair:
Matt is, of course, overwhelmed at this news. He confronts some friends, who knew about the affair. He goes back and forth with his daughter, trying to process what he's heard, while having to break the news about his wife to their friends, and his in-laws, one of whom is played by the great Robert Forster:
Forster plays Elizabeth's father as a stern, harsh man, who doesn't have much nice to say about Matt or his granddaughters. But he has his own titanic personal issues to deal with, and when he gets so mad that he punches someone, its one of the film's few big laughs.

Matt decides he wants to learn more about the man his wife was having an affair with, a local realtor. Under the guise of a short vacation, he takes his daughters (plus Alexandra's seemingly dim-witted sort-of boyfriend) to one of the other islands, where they take a trip to the vast piece of pristine, ocean-front property Matt and his family are the owners of:
Matt visits a relative (played by Beau Bridges), who is very interested in selling the property to a local developer. Matt has always lived off the money he made as an attorney, never touching his inheritance, so he is not as bullish about selling. But other members of his family, who are not so well-off, are, and they are urging Matt to sell and make everyone vastly wealthy.

Matt, with the help of Alexandra, do some detective work and find their mystery man, who also has a seemingly happy family:
Matt confronts the man, generously giving him the chance to say goodbye to Elizabeth. The man's wife (played by Judy Greer, above), seems none the wiser.

After saying one last goodbye to his wife, Matt attends a family meeting where it has been all-but-decided that the right thing to do is sign on the proverbial dotted line:

I'm not going to say anymore about The Descendants (perhaps I've already said too much), other than I thoroughly enjoyed the film. The two main leads, George Clooney and Shailene Woodley (as Alexandra), are both excellent, and have a real chemistry, a believable rapport as father and estranged daughter. They spar a lot throughout the movie, so when Alexandra pipes up to defend her father against unfair criticism, it packs a real emotional punch.

The film delves a bit into island history, and why whatever Matt's decision is about selling the land is so important. Hawaii is, as always, gorgeous to look at, and while Matt King (via some voice over that disappears 1/3rd into the film) scoffs at the cliche that living in Hawaii is paradise, The Descendants really does make it look like anyone's particular cross would be a bit easier to bear in a place like this.

The Descendants ends with a long, drawn out, virtually silent scene, and while I won't say what it is (not that it's some big twist), I will say it seems to put a firm point at the end of the sentence, giving you a clear indication where the King family is going once the credits are over.

The trailers for the movie made it look like it was much more of a comedy than it really is, I guess that's par for the course with movie marketing. Overall, The Descendants has a lot less laughs than Payne's previous films like Sideways, Election, and About Schmidt, but I still found myself engrossed in the story from beginning to end.


Robert M. Lindsey said...

I haven't seen the movie (probably will) but thought this was pretty interesting: If You Liked The Descendants, You Are A Terrible Person

rob! said...

Tried to read that piece, but gave up halfway through.

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