The Descendants

The Descendants

Directed by: Alexander Payne
Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Robert Forster, Judy Greer
Running Time: 1 hr 55 mins
Rating: R
Release Date: November 18, 2011 (Chicago)

PLOT: A middle-aged man (Clooney) must inform his family and friends that his wife is in a coma, and may die. Before doing so, he finds out that he was wife was cheating on him.

WHO’S IT FOR?: Fans of the always-charismatic George Clooney will be drawn in by the actor’s emotional performance, and by the way in which Alexander Payne presents Hawaii. Plus, if you’re one of those people who likes to be one of the first to spread the buzz about “award” movies, see The Descendants before you’re too late.

EXPECTATIONS: I wasn’t a fan of Payne’s previous Sideways, but I’m always interested to view everything and anything that Clooney stars in. Perhaps that is what makes me a true American?



George Clooney as Matt King: An incredible thing about Clooney is that while he is such a prominent god of Hollywood, he can be just as watchable when playing an average man with no significant traits. Outside of his very peculiar dilemma, King is a regular guy. Clooney is highly watchable in a role that requires him to show emotions he doesn’t often present us (tearful and angry monologues). The already-Oscar adorned actor slips neatly into the vulnerable flip-flops of Matt King, and makes viewing both himself and the film that he is dead in the center of a compelling experience.
Score: 8

Shailene Woodley as Alexandra King: This isn’t the best teenager performance we’ve seen this year (that would be Anna Paquin’s turn in Margaret), but it is a commendable one, especially for those who only associate Woodley with her show “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.” As the attitude-heavy daughter of Matt, Woodley provides a performance that is honest to the fickle nature of adolescents, but also to the sincere nature that is not out of their bounds, even when they have visible angst towards their parents. Woodley’s moment in which she submerges underwater after hearing about her mother’s condition is basically spectacular.
Score: 7

Robert Forster as Scott Thorson: This is an “old bones” performance that rings quietly true to our own relatives (and I can only imagine, but probably some father-in-laws). Forster’s on-screen time is limited, but it’s not one that can be easily forgotten. It’s also not a character that exists to solely bully Matt for not being a good enough husband; it instead shows drastic difference of perspective between the two, relating to how to be a good father and a loving husband. It also mirrors them as care-takers. This is definitely an Alexander Payne side-character that we want to know more about, our interests peaked by only a handful of on-screen minutes.
Score: 7

Judy Greer as Julie Speer: As the wife of the infamous Brian Speer, Julie appears neutral until the third act, in which actress Greer is able to keep our attention during an emotional sequence that comes from the left field of the tone’s ballpark. Greer doesn’t bungle this moment, but makes her point, and then lets the rest of the movie figure itself out afterward.
Score: 6

TALKING: Though it has a few memorable lines (“Do you get hit a lot?”), dialogue is not the script’s most stand-out aspect. Characters speak in a natural form, with a whole chunk of subtext lingering behind almost every interaction. It’s not that the movie is quiet, it’s more that its script leaves so much more to wonder about outside of what people say.
Score: 7

SIGHTS: More than any other film I’ve seen this year, The Descendants uses its production design to amplify the atmosphere by just subtle traits. For example, every home we see in the film has a piano in its living room, which is an indication of togetherness, artistic capability, and even a sense of being old-fashioned. Even the scurrying clip-clops of Clooney’s sandals during a running scene seem to say a lot about his character, and the place in which he is in. Hawaii is presented in such a rich fashion by the cinematography as well, which doesn’t hesitate to combine the “real” Hawaii in the same frame as “tourist” Hawaii.
Score: 9

SOUNDS: The Descendants soundtrack gives the film a unique color with a mix of toe-tapping Hawaiian tunes driven by ukulele strums and finger-picked acoustic pieces. Such pieces of music offer both the “traditional” feel of what such atmosphere would incur, but also adds a calm urgency to the movie’s events.
Score: 7


BEST SCENE: I love that shot when Clooney steps out of the car, and he’s at the fork in the road. There’s your movie in a single frame.

ENDING: The Kings resume a normal life – eating ice cream, sitting on the couch, and watching March of the Penguins.

QUESTIONS: You can read my interview with Judy Greer here.

REWATCHABILITY: The Descendants is just as funny the second time. Its emotional power doesn’t seem to stand as strong – the third act will feel like a laundry list of emotional scenes needed to wrap up the movie.


George Clooney might be in the center of this film, but the special draw of the quirky The Descendants is everything that surrounds him – which includes colorful side characters, subtle yet poignant production design, and the depiction of Hawaii that does not present it as a through-and-through paradise. In fact, for Clooney’s character, even the most beautiful parts of the state are more like hell.

The Descendants has an alluring sense of honesty that makes most of it stick so well. Even when it uses oddball characters or situations, we are reminded of how truly queer life can be; how unbalanced we are with each other, and how harmony is something we can strive for but sometimes never have.

The dilemma at the center of The Descendants is a big one, and is even challenging to our ability to fully identify with this movie. Can we really say we have been in Matt’s sandals in which he must follow through with two very specific, albeit unique, predicaments? No, I’m not sure we can. It’s a nice exaggeration of a mid-life dilemma, but it also alienates us from a strong emotional connection with it. It is relieving, however, that the wife’s hospital status is treated like a MacGuffin; I’m not really sure we’re meant to heavily react to that scene. But hooking onto the movie’s idea of communication and family? Yes, we can certainly understand that.

The great charm of The Descendants is that many of its memorable interactions between its rich characters teeter between big comedy and heavy drama. With some of the film feeling very sad behind its laughter, and vice versa, this Hawaii-set film takes viewers to a place that is quite special.



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