Film Review: The Descendants

descendants headerAlexander Payne returns from a seven year hiatus with the marvelous film, The Descendants, that is easily one of the best films of the year.

George Clooney stars as Matt King, a successful lawyer who is the head of his family’s long held land trust which owns the largest plot of undeveloped land on the island of Kauai, Hawaii.  The trust is about to be sold off to developers and their decision could affect the entire state of Hawaii.  With the deadline approaching for the trust’s vote of sale, further complications arise for Matt as his wife is put into a coma after a boating accident.  Matt must rally his friends and family together to get through this crisis and even more unforeseen circumstances arise along the way.

Payne’s sensibility of balancing drama with humor is as sharp as ever and it is a shame it has been so long since we have seen a film from him.  The Descendants walks the fine line of sadness/humor so effortlessly, that it is truly remarkable.  The film will break your heart one moment and have you laughing the next.  The film’s tone is accessible and heartfelt while remaining authentic and sincere every step of the way.  The bond of family is a major theme here and this is one of the strongest family relationships put on film in some time.

Matt and his two daughters, Alex and Scottie, form a unique and strong bond over the course of the film and it is wonderful to watch them grow.  The bonds among family extend beyond just blood here and those bonds are just as affecting as they form over the course of the picture.

Death is also handled wonderfully by Payne and the emotional range the topic allows for the film’s actors lets them do some great work.  I was caught off guard with how direct this film is with its feelings of rage/anger, it doesn’t hold back, and the fact that the film can still be called a comedy is a testament to the strength of the film.  Again, this should be no surprise coming from Payne, but the film is affective on so many levels he deserves as many accolades as I can give him.

Payne doesn’t do all the work though, as he assembles a stellar cast and his star, Clooney, turns in one of his best performances yet as Matt King.  Clooney gets to show off almost every sensibility he has in his vast arsenal and not one of them falls short.  He has more than a handful of “wow” scenes and it might be my favorite male performance of the year.  Not far behind him is the work from his daughters played by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller.  Woodley plays the elder Alex and she is great in her foul mouthed glory.  Playing the “trouble” child of the family, nothing in her role feels clichéd and she gives a performance with depth and heart below her anger.  Miller is given a lot of the film’s comic relief and she is adorable every time she pops up on screen.  Woodley and Clooney share most of the film’s screen time but Miller makes an impact every chance she gets.  Robert Forester is phenomenal in a brief role as Clooney’s father-in-law and, while only in two scenes, he will no doubt leave an impact on you after the credits role.  Nick Krause is a scene stealer as Sid, a character that will never stop surprising you all the way through the end.  Judy Greer gives a great performance in only a couple of scenes, Matthew Lillard is as good as he has ever been, Beau Bridges steals some “dudeness” from his brother, and Rob Huebel does some nice work in a fairly straight role for him.  Patricia Hastie also deserves special mention for playing the part of Elizabeth King who has to be in a coma the entire film in quite a few scenes.  The ensemble is great from top to bottom as they bring this unique tale to life.

In the end, The Descendants is one of the best films of the year.  It has a little bit for everyone and fans of Payne will be ecstatic to have him back.  Hawaii is captured beautifully and Payne mixes in some trademark oddities and dark humor that make his films standout from the pack.  One of the best dramas and comedies of the year, The Descendants should please just about everyone and you should be prepared for quite the emotional ride as it is also one of the most affective movies of the year.

The Descendants is an A

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