The best term I can come up with to describe The Descendents is quietly brilliant. It's easily one of the best films of the year and high in the running for one of George Clooney's best performances, but the way those things come about is strange. Yes the acting is incredible, but not in a scenery chewing, show stealing, kind of way. Yes the screenplay is amazing, but not in a plot twisting, unique story, kind of way. Yes the direction is great but not in a long sweeping shot or camera following sort of way. It's great in a subtle sort of way, is what I'm getting at. I guess we shouldn't be surprised that Alexander Payne, who's previous films include such greats as Sideways and Election, has made a film that's subtly genious.
The plot is concerned with Matt King, a Hawaiian lawyer who's ancestors essentially lucked into owning a shitton of beautiful land in Hawaii. As the film opens, the law is forcing him to sell it or lose it within seven years and his wife is in a speedboat accident, putting in her in a coma. So now the absentee dad has to deal with his children and their various issues without knowing anything about them. And...well that's more or less all I can tell you without spoiling some of the well done plot and character turns.
The story frames Clooney as a work obsessed lawyer , who is so emotionally cut off from his daughters that when his wife falls into a coma, he doesn't have any idea how to communicate with her, much less how to control her (and that's before his other daughter even shows up). The story moves back and forth between darkly comedic scenes and real dark character moments, and while it's occasionally kind of jarring, it manages to pull it off incredibly well. It also allows moments that might usually be comedic to have real depth. No less than three conversations with a coma patient take place and each one of them reveal depth to the character conversing.
Like many of Alexander Payne's film, the plot is initially simple, but because the characters are complicated the story eventually becomes complicated but it all works incredibly well and never feels contrived. Helping it along is the fact that all of the characters feel like real people with real depth (even a minor character who initially makes Bill S. Preston, Esquire look a genius). The dialogue is smart and fast, like most of the scripts that Alexander Payne's worked on, with each character having a distinct and unique voice.
Most of the weight of the acting is on George Clooney's shoulders, finding real humanity in his characters refusal to show emotion in front of other people and more importantly the moments when he does finally break and show it. Most of the other actors afford good performances, in particular Shailene Woodley who is so good in this that I can't actually believe her career.
The direction is afforded more care than it usually is in dialogue and character focused films, mostly in the presentation of it's setting. Hawaii is one of those places that tends to get presented in characture, but in this case an amazing amount of attention is afforded to making it look and feel authentic, and the history and politics unique to the region come up in the plot.
This being a story that features George Clooney as a work obsessed, emotionally closed off protagonist who narrates his own life in a incredibly well written film that moves back and forth between serious content and dark comedy, comparisons to Up In The Air are inevitable. And while it will take a couple more viewings of both films for me to decide which is better, there are much, much, MUCH worse things to be compared to. And taken entirely on it's own merits, The Descendents is easily one of the best things playing right now, so if you want to see something this Thanksgiving weekend, make it this one.
Elessar is a 21 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he's going to give this movie the award for least descriptive movie poster.