The Descendants: Alexander Payne’s early holiday present to moviegoers [Movie Review]

The Descendents, director Alexander Payne’s long-awaited movie, stars George Clooney.

As teenagers wait for the dog days of summer to find their release in air conditioned movie theaters with 3D special effects-laden tentpoles, so do I await the unpredictable winter months in Southern California because that signals the arrival of those mostly Indie features that reveal that American directors actually do understand the importance of character in telling stories. We need wait no longer because Alexander Payne’s latest film, part of a small but superlative grouping, has arrived in the form of “The Descendants” based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings and starring George Clooney in a serio-comic role that reveals even more depth to the layers we thought we already knew.

Matt King (George Clooney) seemingly has it all. One of the descendents of an Hawaiian princess who married a missionary in the 19th century, he and his cousins hold title to the last large piece of pristine property on the island of Kauai, a heritage that Hawaiian law states must be divested within seven years and one that could make all of them wealthy beyond their imaginations. Matt, the sole trustee for the land, has promised to make a decision on the disposition of the property within the next two weeks. Matt is also a very successful real estate attorney with a thriving practice; one that has estranged him from his wife and two daughters. This will all end, however, as he has returned home suddenly because of a critical injury suffered by his wife Elizabeth in a speed boat accident. As Elizabeth lies in her coma, Matt, touchingly, talks quietly to her confessing his sorrow at having been an uncommunicative husband and absentee father, promising he will do better. But for Elizabeth this will be too late because the doctors have determined no more brain activity exists and, according to the stated wishes of her living will, the plug must be pulled. Matt must not only reconnect with his daughters, a task made even more difficult when he comes to realize how wild, inconsiderate and unruly both of them are. Somehow he must find a way to guide their grief as well as his own.

Daughter Scotty (Amara Miller) is a 10-year-old with a mouth like a sailor and no social filter. Called to an emergency meeting at her school, her teachers hand him Scotty’s art project – a book filled with pictures of her comatose mother with tubes up every orifice. Not only has it upset all the other students, but it is a clear indication that it is time for him to have a frank discussion about what she’s feeling and guide her towards more appropriate behavior. Non-plussed, Scotty merely explains that the book was an outlet for her artistic expression. Matt is totally at a loss, realizing that he has lost touch with Scotty and unable to access his own feelings as to what needs to be done. Daughter Alexandra, 17 (Shailene Woodley), brought home from boarding school where she was ensconced to keep her from the various drugs she frequently sampled at home, is a bundle of barely controlled rage primarily directed at her mother. Unable to understand where this anger is coming from, Matt is poleaxed when Alexandra reveals that she had caught her mother in an affair.

Floored by his loss, devastated by his wife’s betrayal, buried by his lack of connection to his children, Matt begins a journey, both physical and philosophical, with the girls. Prodded by Alexandra to discover the identity of her mother’s lover, this trip laden with black humor becomes a journey of awakening, sadness and self-awareness. Through Elizabeth’s death, Matt and the girls grow to accept one another and learn forgiveness. Life is about going on the best way you can with the sad turns it occasionally takes and the humor that is oftentimes found in strange places.

Consider this film an early holiday present from Alexander Payne. He has given us a story to ponder about mortality and doing the best we can with what we have. Laden with black comedy, kids in need of a spanking, inappropriate in-laws and a father so out of touch with his feelings and of those around him that he seems to be inhabiting a separate planet. Payne is aided greatly by Clooney, whose befuddled expressions should be engraved in the cement at Grauman’s Chinese; Miller, whose behavior and acting rivals that of the young Jodie Foster in “Alice Doesn’t Live Her Anymore;” and Woodley, who perfectly captures the hatefulness, confusion, neediness and love of all adolescents. The supporting cast, led by a crusty Robert Forster as Elizabeth’s father who blames her death on Matt for being too cheap to buy his daughter everything she ever wanted, Beau Bridges as one of Matt’s cousins and Judy Greer as the collateral damage are all wonderful.

Now playing at the Landmark and the AMC Century City 15

Opening this week on November 18: “Incendiary” at the Laemmle Fallbrook and “Eames” at the Laemmle Music Hall.



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