Title: The Descendants

Directed By: Alexander Payne

Written By: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, based on Kaui Hart

Hemmings’s novel

Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Patricia Hastie, Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greeg

If our currently somber economic conditions have been caused in part by the selling of housing to people who cannot afford it, such is not the case in Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants.” Payne, whose “Sideways” had us remember Paul Giamatti’s quote “Don’t give me merlot,” this time constructs a man who is expected to sell land for housing to large developers with deep pockets and with little chance of default. Given the value of vacation space in Hawaii, such an investment will bring in a huge fortune for its current owner and members of his family while allowing potential tourists around the world to enjoy properties now going barren. All that Matthew King (George Clooney) must do is to affix his name on a document of sale to enrich himself and fellows with a stake in the property beyond their wildest dreams.

“The Descendants,” however, is not principally a drama about real estate or economics, though discussions and deep thought enter that sphere. Instead, Payne, with a script he composed with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash based on Kaui Hart Hemming’s novel, takes us within a family during a critical time when the woman of the house, having hit her head during a boating accident, is in a coma and not expected to live. The imminent demise of the woman sets the stage for a reconciliation between Matthew King and his daughters: ten-year-old sad-sack Scottie (Amra Miller) and seventeen-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley), who attends a boarding school, curses and acts like a young woman who has been treated financially well but emotionally neglected by her dad.

“The Descendants” has received almost unanimous rave reviews from the critics (ninety percent at last look on rottentomatoes.com) principally because Payne has been able to evoke nuances and subtleties from his performers and the plot alike. Melancholic proceedings turn easily to light humor, while bursts of laugh-out-loud dialogue pepper the track. Alex’s stoner boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) is principal among the laugh-creators, blurting out bon mots and vulgarisms that appear perfectly appropriate to the situations. Sid finds such much adventure traveling about with his g.f., her sister and her dad that we do not wonder that he likes to keep hanging out with them as they drive, fly, walk, talk, argue, pout and discover epiphanies.

The adventure about the islands is motivated by Matthew’s need not only to gather others about to say their goodbyes to his wife but in part by Matthew’s desire to meet and deal with Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), the man who has cuckholded him. As Matthew tracks him down, principally by jogging on the beach, hiding from sight, and working his way into the man’s home through Brian’s clueless wife, Julie (Judy Speer), he brings his daughters into this intimate family matter thereby helping to pave the way to their treating him as one who respects them for their own wisdom; the older girl proud that she is able to defend her dad when the going gets rough.

The humor, which infuses regular air into a picture that would otherwise be a downer, runs throughout, reaching high proportions whenever Matthew’s military-like father in law (Robert Forster) finds fault with Matthew for even his wife to go off in someone else’s speedboat in choppy waters. We come away with a renewed respect for Hawaii, with its stately history though noting the pure accident with which Matthew has come into so much land because of agreements made in 1860. Though we’re shown the part that is not touristic ,the huge houses of the inhabitants projects the good life even if the sun is not out 365 days a year.

The picture is notable for the best ensemble acting of the year to date, a terrific supporting performance from Shailene Woodley as the 17-year-old, and by George Clooney’s dominant action appearing in most frames and acting as narrator.

Rated R. 115 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Story – B

Acting – A-

Technical – B+

Overall – B+

The Descendants Movie

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