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The Descendants | Review

Paradise Lost and Found: Payne Delivers Heartbreaking Tale That Will Pull Heartstrings

The Descendants Alexander Payne posterAmong the films guaranteed to not implode between its premium fall festival showings and its December release date is Alexander Payne’s follow-up to Sideways, The Descendants, a George Clooney vehicle set in the Aloha State. In line with his wryly humored filmography, the picture carefully balances mainstream appeal with serious subject matter, all while presenting it through an over privileged family that audiences should naturally feel disconnected to. But it works, and it works quite well, despite some glaring character flaws.

Like the wino in mid-life crisis in Paul Giamatti of Sideways, Clooney’s Matt has reached an all time low, but unlike Giamatti, his situation is completely out of his hands. He has been left the sole trust holder of his family’s inherited property in Hawaii, and within days he has to either sell the massive plot for a mountain of cash or tell his money hungry relatives that he is keeping the green coastal slopes for he and his family. Meanwhile, his wife (Patricia Hastie) is in a boating accident, has slipped into a comma, and has absolutely no hope of waking up. To top it all off, he finds out that she was cheating on him from his wild-child teenage daughter, Alex (Shailene Woodley). To escape the hospital drama and confront his wife’s lover, Matt flies his two daughters and an estranged numskull boyfriend (Nick Krause), from Oahu to Kauai for a few days. Upon returning home, the family converges on their life-support-free love as they wait for her to pass.

For the majority of the film, Payne’s script is tightly wound, but occasionally his secondary characters stretch a bit too far. Krause in particular has some unbelievably insensitive lines upon his introduction, but he’s accepted into the emotionally intense, personal situation regardless. This initially baffling dynamic injects an abundance of much needed humor, and eventually his meathead persona practically becomes a surrogate old sage. Clooney, on the other hand, doesn’t miss a beat, handling everything with befuddled acceptance. He is in a daze of worry, guilt, hurt and rage, but all he can do it try to keep up with his girls with a straight face.

Looming over Matt’s chaos laden family is his highly memorialized, inherited plot that serves as a reminder of what is most important. He and his family have always had the secluded land, one of the last areas of Hawaii free of tourists and golf courses, and it takes only a few days with his daughters to realize what must be done. His relationships with them are shaky at best, but with their mother’s passing, the gaps are closed thanks to some careful writing and a pair of superb performances by Clooney, and big screen newcomer, Woodley. Their positively evolving on screen father/daughter chemistry is perfectly played.

It may seem a bit familiar, with all the traditional Hawaiian music and tropical imagery floating about, but this is not Just Go With It or 50 First Dates. Adam Sandler is no where to be found. Zany humor occasionally does sneak its way in, but there are young psyches at stake, with real kinship contention in the balance, and Payne safely guides us along, presenting a heartbreaking story that will surely pull the heartstrings of the masses while constantly tickling that all important funny bone with wit and whimsy.

Reviewed on September 17th at the 2011 Toronto Int. Film Festival – SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS Programme.
115 Mins.

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