Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Descendants

So to kick off my reviews of Oscar-nominated films, today we have the movie that I have been really interested in seeing since I heard the buzz a few months back.  In 'The Descendants,' George Clooney stars as Matt King, the emotionally distant husband of a woman in a coma and the father of two girls who is facing a series of life events.

There are three stories intertwined in the film.  First, a tragic accident has placed Clooney's wife in an irreversible coma.  In talking to his older daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) about her mothers impending death, Clooney discovers his wife's infidelity.  And odd near-road film ensues as he seeks to learn more about his wife and her lover. 

As part of that road film experience, Clooney tries to learn more about his older daughter's wild ways and tries desperately to connect to his younger daughter Scottie (Amara Miller in her fist role) who he feels he cannot reach.  The fatherly journey shows Clooney vacillating between buddy and father figure, struggling to find a place in the 3 person family, which is augmented by interesting stoner boyfriend Sid played by Nick Krause

The third leg of the story is about a family land deal. Clooney is the leader of a family that owns thousands of acres of pristine wilderness on Kaua'i and is facing a decision of what to do with the family's birthright in the face of shrinking finances and rapacious developers.  A wide cast of cousins, anchored by Beau Bridges as Cousin Hugh pull Clooney back and forth on the horns of this dilemma.

Clooney is a superstar and this is a tough role for him.  Cuckolded husband of a dying wife trying desperately to connect to his daughters while protecting a family legacy is pretty tough to pull off for anybody.  For Clooney, best known for shallow, slick roles like Danny Ocean and Dr. Doug Ross, this is a real stretch.  I know movies are not generally shot in sequence, this feels like a role Clooney grows into throughout the film. While nominated for an Oscar, the nomination seems like more a of a nod for Clooney's best work yet rather than for the best work by anyone this year.

The story is really the star of the film, and I was happy to see it nominated for best adapted screenplay.  It's a look into some pretty ordinary lives, people facing problems we can all relate to.  The writing though makes these problems interesting and compelling, sometimes even funny, rather than maudlin and dreary.  My favorite lines come when Clooney finds and confronts his wife's lover, Brian Speer, played ably by Matthew Lillard.

Brian Speer: 'It just happened.'

Matt King: 'Nothing just happens.'

Brian Speer: 'EVERYTHING just happens.'

Pretty simple stuff, right? Yes, but written and delivered in just the right context that lets us know these are people like us, caught in a situation we can recognize, even if we have not lived it precisely. THAT'S great writing.

While set on the the islands of Hawaii, the photography is gray and misty and not really as visually stunning as I expected.  There are some amazing vistas now and then, but for the most part, the whole thing feels like it was filmed during the rainy season.  That may be by design, but it feels a little haphazard. The native Hawaiian music, costumes and accents are pitch-perfect, if a little hard to get used to at first.

This was a very good, if flawed film.  Clooney is friendly and affable, but ultimately at sea in a difficult role.  The supporting cast is all very good, but there are some really uneven moments as each of them basically has a scene-stealing moment only to fade into the set again.  The story stands out on its own though and ultimately won my great praise.

Go see 'The Descendants.'  It's a great way to spend two hours, even if it isn't one of the top films of the year.


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