This movie, is quite simply, THE BEST FILM I’VE SEEN IN MONTHS! In the run-off toward the OSCARS, CLOONEY and THE DESCENDANTS are a shoe-in for nominatons. So sit back, relax, and prepare for a Hawaiian vacation– but not the usual exotic escapade. In THE DESCENDANTS, filmmaker Alexander Payne (SIDEWAYS, ELECTION, ABOUT SCHMIDT …) with his hand very naturally on the pulse of what it is to be human, has miraculously captured the exotic– the strange, tragic, funny little realities– in the natural rhythms of everyday life. It’s a crazy mix all right, but trusting that truth IS stranger than fiction, Payne sets his characters in motion and lets it flow. The result? A graceful, complex, spirited, and moving slice of life that rings deeply true. EVERYONE in your family will appreciate something here– IF you’re willing to accept that swearing is part of a teenager’s life.
Clooney plays Matt King– and he is a King of sorts, a huge landowner in what most people would call paradise–HAWAII. But we are immediately shown images of an island that looks very like normal life anywhere. There’s sadness and hardship, litter and homeless people, and the general disorder of human life and social interchange. Clooney is perfect as a man very much like the island he lives on; his physical beauty and wealth have not inured him to life’s trials. Clooney plays the part with warmth and ease, and a pervasive sense of befuddlement as his character deals with the detritus of a rocky marriage and a horrible incident.
His wife is lying in a coma after a boating accident and he is left to manage his two young daughters– one a belligerent adolescent (AMARA WALKER) the other a rebellious teen (Shailene Woodley) who’s angry with her absentee father and her restless mother for reasons we soon learn. Clooney’s character is decent and flawed; he’s been absent, working as a lawyer, and managing the large family estate — which by law the family must soon break up. He is the trustee, the caretaker of the land handed down through generations. He and the other descendants must decide what to do with the Eden they’ve inherited.
And so it is all metaphorically there. How do we live? What are our values? What do we want to pass down– what is our legacy? And yes– death is hovering. As his wife lies between consciousness and eternity, Matt must decide what to do with the mess she has left in her reckless wake. I will not tell you any more about the plot– not even what the previews have injudiciously spilled. You deserve the experience of seeing what reveals itself– just like life.
I will tell you that I gasped many times, at the simple surprise of what I did not see coming. At the sheer lucidity and naturalness of the dialogue, and the audacity of a sudden kiss. At the filmmaker’s ability to observe and convey what his characters are thinking and feeling, right in the middle of life’s awkward, unscripted moments. At the absurdly funny things that happen, right slap up against the horrible things, and how we struggle to improvise when there is no protocol. At the way you can’t tell about some people from the way they act– while others are the jackasses they appear to be. And finally, at how some whom we’ve judged harshly, can suddenly–and without warning– pierce your heart. There’s a scene involving the eldest daughter’s lunky “boy” friend Sid (a splendid Nick Krause) that suddenly takes a soul-searing turn; I wanted to punch this kid–one character does– and then I wanted to take him in my arms.
I left the theater elated, somehow re-assured that life is sweet and tragic all at once, and gently reminded that everything has its time. The last scene finds Matt and his daughters on their sofa together watching TV; we hear Morgan Freeman’s voice narrating The MARCH OF THE PENGUINS, and we understand that these creatures continue to make their way on the continent of ANTARCTICA–which we learn was, once upon a time, a tropical paradise.