October 11, 2011 at 6:38 pm #35741
Going to see this next Tuesday! I’ll write my reactions if you would like!November 14, 2011 at 8:28 pm #35742
This opens in two days in NY/LA – it is sitting an 84 on Metacritic at the moment.November 14, 2011 at 8:47 pm #35743
Ugh…November 17, 2011 at 2:18 pm #35744
Steven Rea, Inquirer Movie Columnist and Critic
Email Steven Rea reviews: article: autoplay – OFF: continuous – OFF: tpltID – 110949125001 About the movie The Descendants Genre: Drama MPAA rating: R Running time: 01:55 Release date: 2011 Rating: Cast: Robert Forster; Matthew Lillard; Mary Birdsong; Nick Krause; Judy Greer; Shailene Woodley; George Clooney; Beau Bridges; Amara Directed by: Alexander Payne More Reviews It’s George Clooney’s voice-over at the opening of The Descendants – offering a quick survey of the island state of Hawaii, its people (yes, there are homeless), its sun-burnished landscapes, its tourism industry, its rich, but not quite seamless culture.
And it’s Clooney’s voice – as Matt King, a real estate lawyer with a family line going back to Hawaii’s earliest colonial days – whose gentle rumble guides us through Alexander Payne’s transcendent tragicomedy. Of course, we see the actor’s face, and plenty of him: surprised, angry, sad, vulnerable, loving, foolish, comically discombobulated. But there’s something about Clooney’s timbre, his quiet, kicked-back intonations, that lead us to the heart of this character. Like the music on the soundtrack – wonderful slack-key guitar from the great Gabby Pahinui and other Aloha State pickers – Clooney’s voice reflects the rhythms of the life here, its joys and its sorrows, for this man whose whole world is being upended.
Matt is the self-professed “backup parent,” a workaholic dad who has let his wife do most of the nurturing for their two girls. But now that wife Elizabeth is in a hospital bed, in a coma – caused by a boating accident off the shores of Waikiki – he has to go it alone with his daughters: Scottie (Amara Miller), a testy 10-year-old, and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), a 17-year-old who has been shipped off to boarding school. In crisis mode, Matt heads there to bring his daughter home, and finds her drunk, wobbling giddily beneath a night sky. The trouble is just starting.
Payne, the director of Sideways and About Schmidt, is a master of telling stories that can be ridiculously funny and deeply moving (often in the same breath), tracking his protagonists as they wrestle with unexpected dilemmas – and with dilemmas of their own making. His films are populated by the messed-up, the neurotic. The Descendants‘ screenplay, an adaptation of the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, is perhaps the most rewarding of Payne’s efforts. (Along with Payne, writing credits go to Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.) It’s not only the way the filmmaker draws the stormy relations between Matt and Alexandra, and Matt and Scottie, and Alexandra and Scottie. It is also that Payne introduces a circle of friends and family, and shows us the connections, and conflicts, in play. And he makes it all feel lived-in, real.
And then Matt discovers something about his wife’s life – a jolting revelation, in fact – and becomes a kind of hapless but determined sleuth, bent on getting to the truth, trying to make sense of who he and Elizabeth were. Matt embarks on this mission with his daughters in tow. And he reluctantly takes Sid (Nick Krause), Alexandra’s stoner boyfriend, along, too.
Clooney has never been better, subtler, more deeply rooted in a performance than he is in The Descendants. And he’s funny, too: This isn’t your typical Clooney hunk; Matt is a bit of a schlub, and to see him running down the road, gasping, or ducking behind walls to avoid detection, is to see a great physical comedian.
The two actresses playing Matt’s kids – a newcomer in Miller, a savvy professional in Woodley – work intuitively, naturally, no wrong notes struck. Krause gets to be the goofball, the comic relief, but there’s more to his Sid, much more. A scene in which Matt and Sid finally talk, man-to-man, and Matt realizes his daughter’s boyfriend isn’t just a doofus – he isn’t that at all – is full of tender revelation. It’s a priceless moment.
Judy Greer, as a wife and mother Matt first encounters on a Kauai beach, is only one among many in a standout, and surprising, supporting cast: Beau Bridges, as a mellow cousin of Matt’s; Robert Forster as Matt’s straightbacked father-in-law, a former military man; and Rob Huebel and Mary Birdsong as neighbors close to Matt, but closer still to Matt’s wife.
The Descendants isn’t only about these people – it’s about the place they live, the land and sea all around them. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who shot Payne’s Sideways, captures the lush exoticism of the islands, but also the everyday energy of Honolulu, the comfortable community of houses, marinas, and beachside eateries that Matt and his clan inhabit.
The Descendants is a story about discovery and self-discovery, about being responsible to one’s family – but also being responsible to the place that a family comes from, the ground we walk on, the earth.November 17, 2011 at 2:22 pm #35745
The Descendants (R) Ebert: Users:
Beau Bridges and George Clooney.
BY ROGER EBERT / November 16, 2011
Cast & Credits
Matt King George Clooney
Alexandra King Shailene Woodley
Scottie King Amara Miller
Sid Nick Krause
Hugh Beau Bridges
Mr. Thorson Robert Forster
Brian Speer Matthew Lillard
Julie Speer Judy Greer
Fox Searchlight presents a film directed by Alexander Payne. Written by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Running time: 115 minutes. Rated R (for language including some sexual references).
“The Descendants” has a happy ending. Therefore, technically, it’s a comedy. It takes place in the paradise of Hawaii. It stars George Clooney. That may lead you to expect a pleasant good time, but this film is so much more than that. Clooney gives one of his best performances in this film directed and co-written by Alexander Payne, who in “Sideways” (2004) and “About Schmidt” (2002), showed a special affinity for men learning to accept their better feelings.
The state of Hawaii is a co-star. I’ve been there many times, which only qualifies me as a tourist, but at more than 20 Hawaii Film Festivals, I met so many people and went to so many places that I began to understand how its people feel a love and protectiveness for the land, and how seriously they take its traditions. Much of the story here is about how Matt King (Clooney), a descendant of one of Hawaii’s first white land-owning families, must decide whether to open up a vast tract of virgin forest on Kauai to tourist and condo development. At the same time, he faces a personal crisis.
The film opens with his thrill-loving wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) in a boating accident off Waikiki Beach. Matt has been involved in land management; he holds the controlling share of his extended family’s estate. Elizabeth has run their own family, raising their daughters: the teenager Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and the younger Scottie (Amara Miller). Now Elizabeth is in a coma, and her living will instructs Matt to remove life support. Alexandra returns home from boarding school, and Matt becomes a single parent while also dealing with the King family’s urgent desire to close the multi-million-dollar land deal.
This is big business, emotional and financial. Just because the lawyers wear short-sleeved Reyn Spooner shirts doesn’t make them pushovers. Matt’s life is further complicated when he discovers from an unexpected source that his wife had been having an affair. And his daughters don’t want him to sell the land, where they must often have wandered as children. Leading the push for the King family is Cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges). Hugh, who is as affable as Bridges can be, doesn’t want to listen to any woo-hoo nonsense about not selling.
The story is based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the daughter of a famous surfer and politician. Reading her bio, I suspect that there must be a lot of her in Alexandra and Scottie. Matt King himself thinks he will probably sell, but now everything is in upheaval. An undercurrent, which Payne wisely keeps subtle, is that perhaps Matt lost touch with his wife and daughters after first losing his special bond to the land.
Payne’s films are usually about people forced into difficult personal decisions. Do you remember Laura Dern in “Citizen Ruth” (1996)? He always carefully establishes his lead characters in a matrix of supporting characters who are given weight and complexity, so we feel the pressures they’re experiencing. Here there is Scott Thorson (Robert Forster), his father-in-law, a flinty, self-confident man who perhaps always has had doubts about Matt. Also, there are the man Elizabeth was having the affair with, Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) and — here it gets thorny — Brian’s wife, Julie (Judy Greer).
The film follows Matt’s legal, family and emotional troubles in careful detail, until Payne shows us, without forcing it, that they are all coiled together. A solution for one must be a solution for all. This is so much more complex than most movie plots, where good and evil are neatly compartmented and can be sorted out at the end.
Payne is gifted at using the essence of an actor. He links something in their nature to their characters. Consider Robert Forster, handsome, tanned, angry in a complex way about his daughter’s immiment death because she might not have been in the boat if Matt had been a better husband. Mr. Thorson has a moment of stunning truth with Sid (Nick Krause), the seemingly spaced-out boyfriend of Alexandra; Sid is also not as simple as he seems. Consider Matthew Lillard as the adulterer; not a bad man. Consider Beau Bridges, who is reluctant to be the bad guy, but not unwilling.
What happens is that we get vested in the lives of these characters. That’s rare in a lot of movies. We come to understand how they think and care about what they decide. There are substantial moral problems underlying the plot.
And George Clooney? What essence does Payne see in him? I believe it is intelligence. Some actors may not be smart enough to sound convincing; the wrong actor in this role couldn’t convince us that he understands the issues involved. Clooney strikes me as manifestly the kind of actor who does. We see him thinking, we share his thoughts, and at the end of “The Descendants,” we’ve all come to his conclusions together.November 17, 2011 at 2:30 pm #35746
Has it really been seven years since Alexander Payne’s last movie? I thought Sideways (2004) was the most exquisite American romantic comedy since Annie Hall, and though it was only Payne’s third mature high-profile feature (after Election and About Schmidt), it locked in the essential elements of the Payne style: the naturalistic blend of humanity and wit (think ’80s Jonathan Demme meets Preston Sturges); the new New Hollywood classicism that’s bubbly and spontaneous but always masterfully controlled; the sense that every story isn’t just a story but a journey, a road movie of the soul.
The Descendants, Payne’s long-awaited new film, is another beautifully chiseled piece of filmmaking — sharp, funny, generous, and moving — that writes its own rules as much as About Schmidt or Sideways did. In a funny way, Payne has become the Stanley Kubrick of serious American comedy: He takes forever to make a movie, searching every time (as Kubrick did) for the perfect book to adapt. But when he finally discovers it and gets rolling (in this case, it’s a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings), he turns each film into a masterfully realized and inhabited universe. Almost everything about The Descendants seems novel, from the lived-in, slightly grungy urban Hawaii settings (the movie is about a family that has been on the islands for generations) to the less-smooth-than-usual image of George Clooney as Matt King, a rumpled lawyer in ugly tropical shirts, geeky-dad braided belts, and an ordinary-schmo haircut. He’s a man who has lost any vital connection to his family.
Then there’s the film’s premise, which is so unabashed in its everyday darkness that at first it seems a bit…challenging. Before the credits, we see a woman standing, smiling in the sun, on a motorboat. It’s Matt’s wife, who, as we soon learn, was thrown from that boat and now lies in a hospital bed seriously injured. As the film begins, she’s in a coma, and the news may be even worse than that. The Descendants isn’t a when is she going to wake up? movie. It’s something with a much more dire tug: An oh my God she may die and if she does what are we gonna do? movie.
The “we,” in this case, is Matt and his two daughters. Ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) is a happy-go-lucky brat, and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, about whom you’re going to be hearing a lot) is such an unhappy brat that she’s been sent off to boarding school, where she favors drunken nights on the beach. The more we learn about this family, the more impossibly messed-up we can see they are. Yet Matt, who’s sitting on a trust that he’s too conservative, and maybe too stingy, to use (the family owns the last spectacular virgin beach land in Hawaii), isn’t just thrown into the abyss by his wife’s coma. He’s slapped in the face and woken up.
The Descendants has been made with the deceptively simple flow of an improvised adventure. And though some of what happens sounds conventional, and is, the situations keep twisting, whether it’s the comical hunting down of an adulterous lover or Matt’s attempt to sell off that trust and make a killing for both himself and a clan of breezy, greedy cousins. All the acting is freshly minted. Robert Forster plays Matt’s father-in-law, who’s so cantankerous that it takes you a few minutes to realize that everything he says is true. Matthew Lillard, goofy and beaming yet with a gentle desperation of his own, is the man who becomes Matt’s slightly absurd romantic rival, and Beau Bridges is the mellow-on-the-outside hard-ass cousin. As for Woodley, she makes the teenage Alexandra such a sharp, beguiling presence that she seems to wash away the residue of a thousand bogus movie adolescents.
It’s George Clooney, though, who carries The Descendants on his noble and weary shoulders. He’s still a rascal, but with the gleam in his eye now heightened (shockingly) by traces of fear. I wouldn’t say that he’s better here than he was in Up in the Air, but that was the movie that taught us that we weren’t being suckered if we felt George Clooney’s pain. In The Descendants, he draws upon that trust. He gives a pitch-perfect performance as a man awakened, for the first time in years, by the immensity of his loss. His big hospital scene near the end will be hailed as a classic Oscar-bait moment, and it surely is — but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a great moment, too. It turns sentimentality into something like grace. ANovember 17, 2011 at 2:40 pm #35747
‘Descendants’: Clooney clan troubled in paradise — 4 stars
A tragicomic look at a family with a shaky paterfamilias
Michael Phillips Movie critic
9:22 a.m. CST, November 16, 2011
“The tropics make it difficult to mope,” observes the beleaguered father and conflicted landowner at the heart of the novel “The Descendants.”
Written by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the 2007 book expanded upon Hemmings’ short story “The Minor Wars,” and the tale is set on two Hawaiian islands — parts of the world, as Hemmings writes, where the men of influence resemble “bums or stuntmen” on permanent vacation.
The book has now become the first feature from director and co-writer Alexander Payne since “Sideways” came out seven years ago. It’s lovely — funny and sad and funny/sad in ways you can’t always pinpoint, capturing both the perpetual Pacific island breezes and the unsettled interior lives of Hemmings’ characters, chief among them the attorney played by George Clooney.
- Michael Phillips
- Bio | E-mail | Recent columns
- Story: The return of Alexander Payne
- Photo: ‘The Descendants’
Matt King’s reckless, charismatic wife, Elizabeth, lies in a coma. A few weeks into the crisis, with Elizabeth hanging on by an invisible thread, Matt learns what his older daughter, a recovering addict played with a fierce lack of sentiment by Shailene Woodley, already knows: Elizabeth had taken a lover at the time of her boating accident.
How can this situation in any way be fit for a comedy? Luck and skill. Hemmings’ sense of humor, which recalls Lorrie Moore’s (“Birds of America”), dovetails very neatly with Payne’s gently sardonic outlook. The film treats the serious business of life and death with a light hand, while handling the overtly comic material with a sneaky sense of gravity. “The Descendants” makes quality look easy. It’s one of the year’s most pleasurable American movies.
Clooney’s Matt runs the show, but for a good while the show appears to be running him, forcing him into a defensive position. Half-Hawaiian, he is heir (along with various relatives, including his cousin Hugh, played by Beau Bridges) to a mouthwatering 25,000 acres handed down by his ancestors. Matt must cast the deciding vote on who will buy the property, and what will be developed there.
Payne gravitates naturally toward road movies, and “The Descendants” qualifies as an island-hopping variation on the genre. After learning the identity of his comatose wife’s lover (a real estate maven played with exquisite discomfort by Matthew Lillard), Matt heads off to confront him in some way or another, accompanied by daughters 17-year-old Alex (Woodley) and 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller). They’re joined also by Alex’s not-quite-a-boyfriend, Sid, played by Nick Krause, who makes every conceivable stoner-slacker cliche newly viable.
The destination in “The Descendants” is clear, but Payne makes each detour count. When Robert Forster shows up as Elizabeth’s quick-tempered father, a man who takes a hilarious dislike to Sid, it’s wonderful comic relief. Then he returns later in the film and breaks your heart. The same goes for Judy Greer, who, like Forster, contributes a supporting turn worthy of an Oscar nomination. As the wife of Elizabeth’s lover, sweet and initially unaware of why Matt and his daughters have come around to visit Kauai, Greer hasn’t anything particularly interesting to play in her initial scene with Clooney. (The two had a very different encounter in “Three Kings.”) Yet the interplay between them is so relaxed and easygoing, we slowly realize we’re being told a great deal about this woman, her outlook, her bargains. And we’re shown something new about Matt’s conflicted motives and scrambled resentments.
The screenplay sands an edge or two off the novel, toning down some of the brazen sexual conversation among the daughters and simplifying Sid’s story. But the changes are astute and deft. Many a film-fan argument has been heard regarding Payne’s attitude toward his characters, dating to his second feature, the abortion-debate satire “Citizen Ruth,” and continuing through “About Schmidt.” Does he condescend to the people on screen in his films? (A related debate continues regarding the Coen brothers, and always will.)
For me, it’s not an issue with Payne’s “Election,” his most successful broad comedy — in part, because Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick brought such wry subtlety to potential caricatures. That movie’s genuinely heartless in a really good way. Whereas “About Schmidt,” to me, condescends to its central figure and most of the geeks and losers he meets on his road trip. I’m not sure Jack Nicholson can successfully inhabit the soul of an aggressively ordinary middle American to begin with. Beyond that, though, the tone in “About Schmidt” wobbles uncertainly between sincerity and snark.
This, I think, is why I love “Sideways” and now “The Descendants” best. They’re even-toned but completely inhabited. The tones are complicated but smoothly mixed. The actors have room to make the people their own. Clooney leads the way with a shrewdly modulated portrayal of a man learning, awkwardly, to no longer settle for being “the backup parent.” At the outset of Payne’s film, Matt describes himself and his girls as parts of an archipelago, related but “separate and alone,” defined by their distance. By the end, the Hawaiian breezes have nudged them all closer together.
‘The Descendants’ — 4 stars
MPAA rating: R (for language including some sexual references)
Running time: 1:50
Copyright © 2011, Chicago TribuneNovember 17, 2011 at 2:41 pm #35748
Directed by Alexander Payne
Rolling Stone: star rating
By Peter Travers
November 15, 2011
If there’s something fundamentally wrong with The Descendants, I can’t find it. What I see ranks high on the list of the year’s best films. Director Alexander Payne is a master of the human comedy, of the funny, moving and messy details that define a fallible life. In adapting the 2009 novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, Payne and co-screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have given George Clooney the context to deliver the finest, truest and most emotionally raw performance of his career. Clooney has never exposed himself to the camera this openly, downplaying the star glamour and easy charm. Even the laughs come with a sting.
Don’t worry. The Descendants isn’t Hamlet or anything with crowns. Still, Clooney’s Matt King, a workaholic semi-schlub of a Honolulu attorney, is descended from royal blood: His great-great-grandmother was a Hawaiian princess who married a haole (white) banker and passed on a rich chunk of real estate. As the primary beneficiary of 25,000 acres of Kauai paradise, Matt must decide to keep the land unspoiled or sell it to developers to please an army of cousins, led by a hilariously greedy Beau Bridges.
Matt also has personal issues. A boating accident has left his neglected wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), in a coma and left Matt (the self-proclaimed “backup parent”) in charge of their two daughters, sass queen Scottie (Amara Miller, a firecracker), 10, and seen-it-all Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), 17, whose reckless ways with boys and drugs has landed her in boarding school. Just when Matt steps it up as a husband and father, life blindsides him, first when he’s informed that Elizabeth will never come out of her coma (should he pull the plug?), and when Alex tells him that Mom was cheating on him (should he dive into denial?).
I’ll pause here to let you sneer at what sounds like TV soap slop. This is where Payne comes in. He walks the high wire between humor and heartbreak with unerring skill. No net. Just when you think you have him figured, you haven’t. The scene in which Alexandra sprawls on a sofa and slams her clueless dad with a catalog of domestic betrayals is devastating. Dynamite is the word for Woodley (TV’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager), who deserves to join Clooney and the movie on the march to awards glory.
With the help of ace cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, Payne gives us a lived-in Hawaii, not the postcard version. As Matt says, the real power brokers “look like bums and stuntmen.” Payne has a knack for digging deep. Look at the marvels he achieved in his first four movies (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways). The Descendants puts Payne at five-for-five.
It’s been seven years since Payne directed Sideways, but he hasn’t lost his touch. I feared a cliché tsunami when Matt hauls the family, including Alexandra’s stoner boyfriend, Sid (a terrific Nick Krause), off to Kauai to confront his wife’s realtor lover, Brian Speer (a revelatory Matthew Lillard, a long way from Scooby-Doo). Instead, Payne turns the seemingly banal into a vastly entertaining and acutely perceptive meditation on what defines family. The actors could not be better, from Robert Forster, as Matt’s hardass father-in-law, to Judy Greer, who turns three scenes as Brian’s cheated-on wife into an explosive tour de force. Payne knows Clooney’s face makes a bruised and eloquent canvas. Matt ultimately speaks blunt truths to his comatose wife, his eyes reflecting long-buried ferocity and feeling. The film ends in family silence in what only appears to be a throwaway. With Payne, every beat counts. As the film’s soundtrack deftly blends traditional and modern Hawaiian music, Payne provokes timeless questions about race, class, conscience and identity. Payne’s low-key approach only deepens the film’s intimate power. Want a movie you can really connect with? The Descendants is damn near perfect.November 17, 2011 at 2:45 pm #35749
From left, George Clooney, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller in “The Descendants.” More Photos »
For One Man, Hawaii Is a Land of Problems
By A. O. SCOTT
Published: November 15, 2011
In a voice-over at the beginning of “The Descendants,” Matt King (George Clooney) challenges the myth, endemic among mainlanders, that Hawaii, where he lives, is a paradise on earth. His brief rant is buttressed by images of poverty and grime that are powerful but also slightly misleading, since Matt’s story is not — or at least not explicitly — one of deprivation or social inequality.
More About This Movie
- The Director of ‘Sideways’ Sees His Life Go Forward (November 13, 2011)
Enlarge This Image
Merie Wallace/Fox Searchlight Pictures
Beau Bridges and Mr. Clooney in “The Descendants.” More Photos »
Though he is a bit uncomfortable about admitting it (and though he tries to live a life of low-key, middle-class normalcy), Matt, a real estate lawyer, is as close to an aristocrat as it is possible for an American to be. His family tree stretches back to the earliest white settlers in Hawaii and includes indigenous royalty as well. This bloodline has devolved into a gaggle of pale loafers in loud shirts and sandals — Matt’s cousins — who own a pristine and picturesque tract of land on Kauai. Matt, the trustee of this precious birthright, is in charge of selling it off to developers.
This land deal is big news locally, but it is in some ways the least of Matt’s problems, a reminder of the burdens of an identity he both takes for granted and wishes he could shed. His wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), lies in an irreversible coma in a Honolulu hospital after a boating accident. Shortly after Elizabeth’s doctors inform Matt that he is about to become a widower, he learns that she has made him a cuckold.
Her impending death and the revelation of her past infidelity send Matt into a tailspin. The double wound also establishes what would seem to be Matt’s unshakable claim on the audience’s sympathy, which Mr. Clooney’s self-effacing charm helps to secure. But Mr. Clooney and the director, Alexander Payne (working from a script Mr. Payne adapted, with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, from Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel), proceed to shake up our expectations all the same.
The way Matt’s predicament plays out is surprising, moving and frequently very funny. Mr. Payne — immeasurably aided by a dazzlingly gifted, doggedly disciplined cast — nimbly sidesteps the sentimental traps that lurk within the film’s premise. He somehow achieves the emotional impact of good melodrama and the hectic absurdity of classic farce without ever seeming to exaggerate. There are times when you laugh or gasp in disbelief at what has just happened — an old man punches a teenager in the face; a young girl utters an outrageous obscenity; Mr. Clooney slips on a pair of boat shoes and runs, like an angry, flightless bird, to a neighbor’s house — and yet every moment of the movie feels utterly and unaffectedly true.
Matt, who describes himself as “the back-up parent, the understudy” is suddenly forced to manage his two difficult daughters. The younger one, Scottie (Amara Miller), who is 10, is angry and confused, while her 17-year-old sister, Alex (Shailene Woodley), just seems angry. She has a troubled past, a bad attitude and a grudge against her mother that she refuses to relinquish in spite of Elizabeth’s condition.
The emotional trajectory of “The Descendants” is familiar enough. It is about the fracturing and healing that take place within families. Matt needs to bond with his children, make peace with his wife and deal with the pesky politics of entitled cousins. As he works his way through these challenges and others, including a confrontation with his wife’s lover (Matthew Lillard), a lively and complicated mesh of plots and subplots takes shape, but the most striking and satisfying aspects of “The Descendants” are its unhurried pace and loose, wandering structure.
In most movies the characters are locked into the machinery of narrative like theme park customers strapped into a roller coaster. Their ups and downs are as predetermined as their shrieks of terror and sighs of relief, and the audience goes along for the ride. But the people in this movie seem to move freely within it, making choices and mistakes and aware, at every turn, that things could be different.
Matt in particular is overwhelmed, and sometimes paralyzed, by the necessity of choosing, and the brilliance of Mr. Clooney’s performance lies in his ability to convey indecision, hesitation and the precipitous tumble into error. Matt gets a lot of things right in the end, but along the way he mishandles nearly everything, sometimes because of impulsiveness and sometimes because he is paralyzed, unable to trust or locate his own best instincts.
This actor’s instincts, meanwhile, have never been keener or more generous. Mr. Clooney, bolstered by his effortless magnetism, has always been an excellent ensemble player, and while he is at the center of “The Descendants,” he does not dominate the movie. Everyone in it is wonderful: Ms. Woodley (“The Secret Life of the American Teenager”), giving one of the toughest, smartest, most credible adolescent performances in recent memory; Nick Krause as her goofy sidekick, Sid; Robert Forster as Elizabeth’s permanently enraged father; Beau Bridges as Matt’s cousin Hugh.
I could go on and on. As the wife of Elizabeth’s lover, Judy Greer, in just a few scenes, slices to the heart of the movie’s marital crisis. But each person who shows up on screen, even for a minute or two with nothing especially important to accomplish, has an odd and memorable individuality. “The Descendants,” streamlining Ms. Hemmings’s ample and engaging book, seems to unfold within a vast landscape of possible stories. What happens to Matt, Scottie and Alex is just a thread in a tapestry of incidents and relationships that has no real end.
- The Director of ‘Sideways’ Sees His Life Go Forward (November 13, 2011)
Mr. Payne, with a light touch and a keen sense of place — this Hawaii is as real and peculiar as the Nebraska of “About Schmidt” or the California wine country of “Sideways” — has made a movie that, for all its modesty, is as big as life. Its heart is occupied by grief, pain and the haunting silence of Elizabeth, whose version of events is the only one we never hear. And yet it is also full of warmth, humor and the kind of grace that can result from our clumsy attempts to make things better.
To call “The Descendants” perfect would be a kind of insult, a betrayal of its commitment to, and celebration of, human imperfection. Its flaws are impossible to distinguish from its pleasures. For example: after what feels as if it should be the final scene, a poignant, quiet tableau of emotional resolution and apt visual beauty, Mr. Payne adds another, a prosaic coda to a flight of poetry. Without saying too much or spoiling the mood, I will say that I was grateful for this extra minute, a small gift at the end of a film that understands, in every way, how hard it can be to say goodbye.
“The Descendants” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Bad language, impossible situations.
Opens on Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles.
Directed by Alexander Payne; written by Mr. Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings; director of photography, Phedon Papamichael; edited by Kevin Tent; production design by Jane Ann Stewart; costumes by Wendy Chuck; produced by Jim Burke and Mr. Payne; released by Fox Searchlight. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes.
WITH: George Clooney (Matt King), Shailene Woodley (Alexandra King), Beau Bridges (Cousin Hugh), Robert Forster (Scott Thorson), Judy Greer (Julie Speer), Matthew Lillard (Brian Speer), Nick Krause (Sid), Amara Miller (Scottie King), Mary Birdsong (Kai Mitchell), Rob Huebel (Mark Mitchell) and Patricia Hastie (Elizabeth King).November 17, 2011 at 2:47 pm #35750
The Descendants: Telluride Film Review
7:02 PM PDT 9/2/2011 by Todd McCarthy
The Bottom Line
A splendid comedy-drama about a father coping with his comatose wife and difficult daughters represents high points for George Clooney and Alexander Payne.
Telluride Film Festival
George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Nick Krause, Amara Miller, Mary Birdson, Rob Huebel, Patricia Hastie
Alexander Payne has always impressed with his talent for injecting his studies of flawed ordinary people with unexpected warmth and comedy, but never has his knack for mixing moods and modulating subtle emotions been more evident.
After a five-year wait since Sideways, Alexander Payne has made his best film yet with The Descendants. Ostensibly a study of loss and coping with a tragic situation, this wonderfully nuanced look at a father and two daughters dealing with the imminent death of his wife and their mother turns the miraculous trick of possibly being even funnier than it is moving. George Clooney is in very top form in a film that will connect with any audience looking for a genuine human story, meaning Fox Searchlight should be able to give this a very long ride through the holidays beginning Nov. 23 and well into the new year. Toronto and New York Film Festival screenings will follow the Telluride bow.
our editor recommends
Payne has always impressed with his talent for injecting his studies of flawed ordinary people with unexpected warmth and comedy, but never has his knack for mixing moods and modulating subtle emotions been more evident than in this adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ 2007 novel. Skillfully scripted by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rush, the tale unfolds over about a week’s time, during which many fundamentals about the life of Matthew King and his family are turned topsy-turvy.
An admittedly distant father, Matthew King (Clooney) is blindsided by his wife Elizabeth’s dreadful speedboat accident that has left her comatose. A successful real estate lawyer in Hawaii, Matthew hasn’t a clue how to deal with his sulky 10-year-old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller), and when they go to fetch saucy 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley) from her boarding school on the Big Island, they are confronted by a drunken girl spouting obscenities on the beach after curfew.
Despite his shortcomings as a father and, very likely, a husband, Matthew can’t help but stir viewer sympathy, especially when the smart-mouthed Alex insists upon bringing along stoner boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) wherever they go and when confronted by his father-in-law (Robert Forster), a military type who deals with his grief over his beloved daughter by abusing everybody in his vicinity.
But the monkey wrench in the already fraught situation turns up when Alex informs her clueless dad that his wife had been cheating on him. As he so often does, Payne finds a way to augment the impact of a dramatic revelation with out-of-left field humor; in this case, he has Matthew put on some sandals and go running to the home of his wife’s best friend, his determined rush to learn the truth made giddily humorous simply by the sight of his awkward dash. Payne repeats this technique at equally critical moments, such as the denouement of the scene when Matthew finally tracks down the man who has cuckolded him.
Backgrounding the medical and emotional drama—with no hope of recovery, Elizabeth will be let go—is an expressive layer of Hawaiian history; Matthew’s family’s presence on the islands dates back to 1860 and a decision is due to be made within days about selling 25,000 acres of stunning waterfront property in Kuau’i, said to be the largest remaining such undeveloped parcel. Income from a sale would deliver a fortune to Matthew and his many relatives (including a yokel very nicely played by Beau Bridges), and a trip taken to the site by the endearingly conflicted quartet of Matthew, his girls and Sid plays a role in the resolution of this meaningful issue.
A major key to the film’s success are the nuances, fluctuating attitudes, loaded looks and tonal inflections among the main characters; the ensemble work is terrific. Despite her father’s admonitions, Alex continues to fling around dirty words, something then picked up by Scottie. Sid starts off seeming like a total dufus, always saying exactly the wrong thing, but even he gets a significant scene later on that completely changes the way he can be regarded.
The audience does get the satisfaction of Matthew’s fine confrontation with the man who screwed his wife, but this is made legitimately richer by a wonderful follow-up scene involving his wife, indelibly etched by Judy Greer.
But it’s Clooney who carries it all with an underplayed, sometimes self-deprecating and exceptionally resonant performance. He’s onscreen nearly all the time (and narrates as well) and makes it easy to spend nearly two hours with a man forced to carry more than his fair share of the weight of the world on his shoulders for a spell.
Similarly essential to the venture’s success is Woodley, who transforms convincingly from a girl who is reflexively condescending toward her father to one who becomes his eager accomplice and staunchest defender. Miller and Krause are excellent as the other members of what becomes the inner circle, and Patricia Hastie will, one hopes, one day have the opportunity to make a more expressive impression on the big screen than she does in the dramatically thankless but somehow still memorable role of the inert, bedridden Elizabeth (well, she does get a kissing scene with George Clooney, even if her character can’t feel it).
The film notably provides a most welcome untouristy view of Hawaii and everyday life on the islands, amplified by diverse weather (heavy clouds, mist and rain offset the expected sunny vistas). The soundtrack is also exceptional, consisting almost entirely of local tunes used in apt and expressive ways.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Opens: November 23 (Fox Searchlight)
Production: Ad Hominen Enterprises
Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Nick Krause, Amara Miller, Mary Birdson, Rob Huebel, Patricia Hastie
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenwriters: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rush, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings
Producers: Jim Burke, Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Director of Photography: Phedon Papamichael
Production Designer: Jane Anne Stewart
Costume Designer: Wendy Chuck
Editor: Kevin Tent
R rating, 110 minutesNovember 17, 2011 at 2:49 pm #35751
After a five-year absence from the big screen, writer/director Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election, About Schmidt) returns in top form with this extraordinary dramedy about a family coping after a tragic boating accident leaves mother in a coma. George Clooney has never been better, here playing the father of two girls who must navigate this difficult new territory. The story should resonate strongly with adults and even younger audiences who will find much to digest here. Thanksgiving opening will draw strong numbers boosted by top reviews and Clooney’s star power. Film could break out into a sizable Terms of Endearment-style hit. Awards prospects are through the roof.
Set in a workaday Hawaii Hollywood movies rarely show, The Descendants puts a spotlight on life in paradise with Clooney playing Oahu resident Matt King, an okay husband and father who’s never really had to deliver much in those roles. As the trustee and major property owner in his family’s large, untouched land holdings, he is under pressure to sell. Meanwhile his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is in a coma after a boating accident; she’d previously asked him to pull the plug if her prospects were hopeless. Payne doesn’t hide from this situation, presenting the comatose woman as a significant onscreen character. The main action revolves around his relationship with his ever-challenging daughters, including teenager Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and her feisty younger sister Scottie (Amara Miller). Alexandra, in fact, displays all the growing pains and irresponsibility of a teen girl but, through the course of the picture’s nearly two hour running time, emerges with a new maturity allowing the impressive Woodley (a real find) to present a three-dimensional teen of the sort rare in film. Her dimwit boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) comes off as an uninhibited dunderhead initially but is surprisingly allowed to exhibit a smarter side as the film progresses. A major plot thread about the wife’s newly discovered infidelity is masterfully woven in and out.
These characters are all recognizably human; it’s a welcome trait that Payne always presents in his films and one sadly missing from most contemporary movies. Adapting Kaui Hart Hemmings novel, Payne and his co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have provided some terrific dialogue and natural situations to let these flawed characters breathe, each earning audience empathy rather than asking for it. Payne, like Billy Wilder before him, has the remarkable ability to move from comedy to drama and back again on a dime, sometimes during a single line of dialogue.
The cast couldn’t be better. Clooney is not afraid to show flaws onscreen and Matt King is not only flawed, he’s floundering. The actor doesn’t miss a beat demonstrating his character’s issues but still manages to make him oddly likeable. Woodley is a true standout along with the wonderful Judy Greer as Lillard’s betrayed but vindictive wife. Beau Bridges is great as a cousin urging Matt to sell the family land and Robert Forster socks home a couple of great and deeply touching scenes as Elizabeth’s father.
Production values are first rate and Payne’s incorporation of some well-chosen Hawaiian music is a real plus. The Descendants is that rare bird, moving, enlightening, funny and unapologetically human. It’s one of the year’s best pictures, one to savor and think about.
Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Nick Krause, Patricia Hastie, Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer, Robert Forster, Amara Miller, Nick Krause
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenwriters: Alexander Payne & Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Producers: Jim Burke, Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Rating: R for language including some sexual references
Running Time: 115 min.
Release Date: November 23 ltd.November 17, 2011 at 2:53 pm #35752
George Clooney stars in ‘The Descendants’: movie review
George Clooney’s nuanced performance carries ‘The Descendants,’ an alternatively funny and tragic family drama.
By Peter Rainer, Film critic / November 16, 2011
George Clooney and Shailene Woodley are shown in a scene from the movie ‘The Descendants.’
Merie Wallace/Fox Searchlight Films/AP
Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” doesn’t move like other movies. Set in Hawaii, it has a languorous ease, but it also has its antic, oddball rhythms and, at times, a brief, breathtaking romanticism. It’s a jumble that work
George Clooney plays Matt King, a successful Oahu real estate lawyer whose wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), has been left comatose by a speedboat accident. Their two daughters, pesky 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and prickly 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley), have never been especially close to Matt, who, in a voice-over, tells us, “I’m the backup parent. The understudy.”
It soon becomes clear to Matt that Elizabeth’s coma is irreversible and her remaining time, once the plug is pulled, will be short. How he deals with his daughters in this tragic situation is the heart of the film, and yet – and this is the film’s true originality – it never descends into pathos. Payne, who based his movie on the acclaimed 2007 novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings and shares a screenplay credit with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, understands how tragedy often plays itself out as a flurry of warring emotions. The grief in this film is often goofy, almost knockabout. Matt and his daughters and many others in the movie’s widening human circle are caught up in a whirlwind of kindness and rue and redemption.
IN PICTURES: The 10 highest grossing films of all time
As if Matt doesn’t have enough to deal with, he also has to make a decision about the fate of 25,000 acres of pristine land on Kauai that, as majority stakeholder in the family trust, his relatives are pushing him to sell. (His ancestry, on one side of his family, goes back generations to royal Hawaiian blood.) Even worse, he must confront the revelation, supplied early on by Alex, that Elizabeth was carrying on an affair.
Alex, who has been boarding at a pricey school on the Big Island, resented her mother for her adultery, and there is a strong element of payback in the way she unloads her bombshell on her father. Despite the maundering state of his marriage, the clueless Matt is poleaxed at the news.
Ironically, inevitably, it is the search for Elizabeth’s boyfriend, who turns out to be an Oahu real estate agent named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), that ends up bonding Matt with his eldest daughter. They track Brian down to the Big Island where he’s taking a mini-vacation with his family and, in coconspiratorial mode, press a confrontation. But Matt isn’t the type to foment a fight. What he really wants from Brian, in a beautifully written and acted scene, is something more than a punch-out. He wants Brian to come to the hospital in Oahu and pay his last respects to Elizabeth. (In the course of the film practically all the major players have their solo scenes – they are more like confessions – with the comatose Elizabeth.)
Although there are some magnificent vistas on view in “The Descendants,” particularly of the Kauai acreage that Matt is loath to part with, Payne doesn’t portray Hawaii in paradisiacal colors. This is perhaps the first film ever shot in Hawaii that brings out the workaday, almost banal aspects of the islands. It’s a bracingly realistic – bracingly honest – view of experience, and it’s entirely in keeping with the open-ended way in which Payne works.
He surprises us. Just when you think you’ve pegged a person’s character in this film, the emotional landscape shifts and you realize you didn’t really know that person after all. This is true not only of Matt and his daughters but also of Alex’s stoner boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), who, somehow, ends up as a kind of mentor to Matt; or Matt’s martinet father-in-law, Scott (Robert Forster), who blames him for Elizabeth’s accident; or Brian’s wife, Julie (Judy Greer), with her fragile chipperness; or Matt’s cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), who can’t comprehend why his relative wouldn’t want to sell the Kauai acreage and reap a windfall for the family.
All these actors are wonderful, and none more so than Clooney, who does something very difficult here: He makes decency magnetic. There is not a trace of vanity in the way he plays down his trademark glamour. He and Payne are coconspirators, too. They know that the story they are telling is too emotionally complicated to muck up with a lot of preening and artifice. They head right into the sad and crazymaking humor of the situation. This is a modest marvel of a movie. Grade: A (Rated R for language, including some sexual references.)November 17, 2011 at 2:58 pm #35753
Thanks for posting these Babypook – curious though that you more than anyone here suggests we not be influenced by critics.November 17, 2011 at 3:07 pm #35754
Anyway, its Oscar chances:
1) Best picture – a certain nominee, possible winner, too early to scope out its relative position, but this likely has some passionate support and not much passionate opposition
2) Best actor – a lock for nomination (the first so far), possible winner – I’d go so far as to call him a slight favorite
3) Other acting – it’s such a great ensemble, and everyone is pitch perfect, but between the bigger names being less known, and the showier best roles (Robert Forster, Beau Bridges – the latter maybe one scene short of a nomination for supporting, but he is just terrific), probably none other, unless a juggernaut develops
4) Directing – sure nominee, possible win
5) Adapted screenplay – sure nominee, possible win
6) The rest – the film is impeccably crafted, but not in the flashy way that gets nominations; it would have to get them as part of a strong pack
Which leaves us with the possibility of a quite possible best picture winner legitimately only having four nominations, causing the usual (and understandable) question of relative weakness. So down the line, this will bear further observation.
No one thought that The King’s Speech had nomination-worthy editing, sound or cinematography either, though, so if The Descendants is going to win, it will probably rack up some random undeserved technical nominations, as well.
You must be logged in to reply to this topic.