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December 23, 2011
Review - " The Descendants "  -  (in theaters) By Roland Hansen
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Directed by: Alexander Payne
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara
Miller, Nick Krause, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Beau

Real-estate lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) finds
everything in his life is in flux and on the verge of collapse
simultaneously. He isn’t just functioning one day at a time,
he’s navigating the chaos one hour at a time. This isn’t any
easier even though he lives in Hawaii, a place that’s
supposed to be paradise.

Clooney being Clooney, though, he makes every stage of
his character’s arc believable, from grief through anger
and eventual acceptance, and he gives a performance that’
s so understated as to appear effortless. Having long ago
learned to jettison movie-star vanity to play varied,
challenging parts — and having turned 50 this year —
Clooney now seems comfortable portraying regular guys
with regular problems. What Matt must endure cumulatively
is extraordinary, but elements of his journey will surely
resonate with ordinary folks.

Matt’s wife, Elizabeth, is lying in a hospital bed in a coma
following a boating accident. By all accounts, she’s been a
bit of a wild child her whole life, but now there isn’t much
hope that she’s going to make it. Matt, who hasn’t been the
most available or hands-on father, must now take care of
the couple’s two daughters on his own: 17-year-old
boarding school rebel Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and
10-year-old troublemaker Scottie (Amara Miller).

Matt and the girls must make the rounds to friends and
family to explain there isn’t much time left for Elizabeth and
to give them a chance to say their good-byes. This process would seem wrenching enough, but Alexandra insists on making
it even more difficult by bringing along her idiot boyfriend, Sid (Nick Krause), for moral support.

Then she drops another bombshell on her father: Elizabeth was having an affair at the time of her accident. Matt is
understandably incensed by the discovery, but he’s also curious to find out who this guy is, and his bumbling attempts at
casual stalking provide some much-needed comic relief.

that we should. Maybe it has something to do with the laid-back setting (although it is novel to see this beautiful place
through the eyes of everyday residents, rather than tourists). “The Descendants” also loses some of its power in the
frequent use of voiceover, which tends to spell out too much.

But the story keeps you guessing as to where it will go, and it features some piercing moments of emotional truth. The
casting of Matthew Lillard as the other man is an unexpected and inspired choice, and the inevitable confrontation with him
takes some surprising turns; this is also true of the interactions with his wife, played by Judy Greer.

This is, of course, Clooney’s show - he’s in nearly every moment of the film, and he delivers a doozy of a moment-of-truth
speech - but both young actresses who play his daughters hold their own beautifully with him. Woodley in particular shows
As if all this weren’t enough to
handle, Matt’s enormous
family has put him in charge
of deciding what to do with
the 25,000 acres of pristine
land on Kauai that they’ve
inherited from their royal
Hawaiian ancestors. A
deadline is looming to choose
whether to sell it to
developers, and to whom,
and for how much; this
burden of privilege is what
gives the film, based on the
novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings,
its title.

Matt wades through all these
troubles, and while everything
would seem to be at stake at
once, Payne’s pacing is often
so languid that we don’t feel
the sort of mounting tension
a confident spark as her
character believably
develops from a state of
bitter resentment to mature
responsibility. The last shot
indicates how all three of
them have changed with
quiet uplift.

Of Payne’s short but great
list of films, The
Descendants might be his
most accessible or
enjoyable yet, despite the
heartrending topic(s).  The
performances are
outstanding all-around,
even possibly award-
winning.  The pitch-perfect
combination of tragedy and
comedy turns the film into
a poignant one well-worth
watching multiple times.