Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Up in the Family Tree

I finally saw the George Clooney vehicle The Descendants this past week. Why has it taken me so long to get around to seeing a title nominated for several industry awards and listed on dozens of best of 2011 lists? Well, ever since trailers started appearing this past fall (and it feels even longer ago than that) I can't say was all that impressed with the material or reasons presented for seeing this motion picture. Well, to be honest, there was only one thing about the film that really turned me from seeing this as soon as it came out: director Alexander Payne. Payne is an acclaimed director, but his previous films Sideways and About Schmidt, which his latest trailer are quick to mention, are not nearly the amazing releases that so many have celebrated over the years. Jack Nicholson practically SAVED About Schmidt from itself, and there wasn't one non-detestable character in Sideways. So here we come to The Descendants, a film that looks good on paper but has the demerit of including Payne as its main creator. Still, there was no way I was going to miss seeing this title amid the awards season, and so when the opportunity came to see it this past week with my family, I begrudgingly accepted. I'm glad I did, as I can easily say that The Descendant deserves its place among 2011's best.

We solve crimes
Taking place in urban Hawaii, The Descendants introduces us to Matt King (George Clooney), who is as worn down a man as you can find in the state of Hawaii (where the story takes place). His wife is in a coma from a boating accident, leaving Matt in the dubious situation of raising his two daughters Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) by himself while she recovers. Matt is also the trustee of a family trust that controls 25,000 acres of land, which the family must sell due to the rule against perpetuities. The family was just about ready to sell the land when Matt's wife had the accident, and as the sole trustee, Matt has been trying to decide what to do about it. Doctors have told Matt that his wife is not going to wake up again, and by her own instructions the doctors are going to take her off life support, meaning she's only days away from passing. Now he is traveling around Hawaii, telling family and a few close friends about what is happening so that they can say their goodbyes. Alex has no interest in talking about mom, however, and when Matt confronts her on this, she reveals a secret he never knew; his wife was cheating on him with another man.

He might be a lesser-known Bridges, but he has his brother's hair
What separates The Descendants from its predecessors is that there are no gimmicks to detract from the story or message. This might be thanks to the source material, in this case the novel of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings, which I've never read but has doubtlessly become more popular since this film's release. Unlike in his previous efforts, Payne's characters FEEL genuine and three dimensional, with no stilted cliches mixed in. Matt's wife, played by Patricia Hastie, doesn't have a single line of dialogue, and yet is STILL completely characterized through the people who know her. This depth of character is what separates The Descendants from many of its contemporaries, and really draws you into the story, which without that depth might be far less impressive than it turns out. Another nice touch is the scoring. While we're told early on that living in Hawaii is the same as living anywhere else and is not really the "paradise" many call it, one unique aspect is the amazing soundtrack full of authentic Hawaiian music. This is the first American film to be scored entirely with that state's traditional music, and tunes from masters like Gabby Pahinui, Raymond Kane, and Keola Beamer are perfectly set against he beautiful sunsets and sandy beaches of many a person's vacation destination. While I wouldn't recommend listening to the music by itself (it's slowly paced and only for true fans of the genre) it does make an amazing accompaniment to the main show.

How much product to you think he puts in that mop, anyway?
Of course, those aforementioned deep characters would be nothing if not for the amazing acting in portraying them. There's no surprise that the best are Clooney and Woodley as the troubled and disconnected father and daughter, who each undergo transformations throughout the course of the story. Clooney is (as he always is these days) brilliant, but I was really lifted by the strength of Woodley's performance. 2011 proved to be a breakout year for several actors, and the Secret Life of the American Teenager star proves she has what it takes to be a lasting presence in mainstream film for years to come. Many of the side characters are played expertly by veteran performers, including standouts like Robert Forester as Matt's stern father-in-law and Judy Greer as a woman Matt meets while traveling the state. Another young prodigy is Nick Krause as Alex's friend Sid, a mouthy neanderthal of a teen who turns out to be more perceptive and helpful than he at first lets on. And Beau Bridges is masterful as Matt's cousin, one of the many who will benefit from the sale of the land. While he only appears in a couple of scenes, Bridges masterfully commands his scenes and is only behind Clooney and Woodley in terms of pure screen presence.

No backseat driving!
The film does have a few issues, however those that exist are nowhere near what I was expecting. The film does meander in a few locations, though those are thankfully easy to ignore. The biggest issue I had with the film was the opening monologue consisting of Clooney's voice over to set the story in motion. With the actor going on for seemingly ten minutes to start the film, I was afraid that Payne would take a "tell" instead of "show" approach when it came to storytelling. Thankfully, that voice work ends completely after story setup is finished, and the rest of the film is told from a far more subtle perspective, with character interaction, visual imagery and deft facial expressions moving us forward. Never are we confused as to what is going on, though the film does hold back some small details to keep the audience from knowing too much too soon. And the ending is thankfully free of ridiculous cliches or unbelievable plot resolutions, resulting in a refreshing change for your dollar.

Best Supporting Actress of 2011?
Despite all these great things, How The Descendants really surprises is by truly becoming more than the sum of its parts. Between the excellent acting, superb storytelling and deft direction (proving Payne has what it takes to make a truly great film), this film manages to crack the year's Top 10, coming in at number 10. Not bad for a film I had discounted early on, proving that prejudgment of a film or the quality of its trailer have no basis in how the final product will finally be. As for Clooney and company, if you're one of those people who watch all the Oscar films. than The Descendants was probably already occupying a solid portion of your radar. If not, take the time and see this truly worthy title.

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