Film review: THE DESCENDANTS from Built for Speed

The Descendants is the latest film for writer/director Alexander Payne who brought us the excellent Sideways back in 2004.  Like Sideways, The Descendants combines painful self-reflection, male mid-life crisis and quirky comedy for a slightly odd but engrossing view of middle class angst.  With The Descendants, Payne also adds potent family drama and a moving story of loss.

Despite a successful legal practice and a comfortable existence in the lush surrounds of Hawaii, Matt King’s (George Clooney) life is in turmoil. His wife is in a coma after an accident and he learns she may have been having an affair with a sleazy real estate agent.  On top of this, he’s been forced to referee a cash grab by his relatives who want to turn a pristine piece of land, owned by his family for centuries, into a resort.  Just as traumatic for him is the fact that he’s forced to be a responsible father to his 17 and 10 year old daughters for the first time.

What could have been a mundane and soapy story is invigorated by brutally honest dialogue perceptively drawn characters, clever comedy and genuine emotion.  This is definitely a tear jerker but it never seems soppy or manipulative.

The film is also infused with Hawaiian culture – Clooney’s character is the descendant of Hawaiian royalty – and affection for Hawaii itself.  It does, however, go out of its way to show that Hawaii is not just a tropical paradise for wealthy tourists; it’s as fraught with problems as anywhere else.

There has been Oscan buzz surrounding the performances in this film but because they’re not showy they might be overlooked in favour of more extravagant efforts in other films.  Clooney is excellent although, let’s face it, he’s genetically superior to the average slob so it’s difficult to see him as an everyman dad.  Because of this he’s much more effective when he’s out of the purely domestic setting confronting sleazy estate agents or greedy, weirdo relatives.  Shailene Woodley, who looks a lot like Natalie Portman, is a terrific find as Clooney’s daughter although her transformation from drug taking delinquent to responsible domesticated young woman is a bit sudden here.  There’s also a nice cameo from Robert Forster as Clooney’s grumpy Father in Law.  Perhaps most memorable, though, is Nick Krause as Woodley’s hilariously stupid boyfriend who simply accepts that everyone on earth wants to punch him.

For those who want strong writing and performances rather than 3D-HD-CGi-driven violence and destruction this is for you.

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