Monday, September 10, 2012

Review: The Descendants

When George Clooney is focused on being an actor/entertainer, his movies tend to be very good.  And when he is more interested in pushing other agendas (i.e. political), those films tend to be bland, didactic, and not nearly as intelligent as some knights of the keyboard would have you believe.  But then again, I tend to be skeptical when those who hardly reside in the real world step down from the mountaintop to lecture us common folk on how we should view our real world problems (see also, Sean Penn).  And so Clooney’s career has metamorphosed from obscure mediocre television actor to grounded and gracious television and film A-lister, to self-important pseudo intellectual sensationalist.  But that doesn’t mean the man can’t still participate in a good movie every now and then, and that is precisely what The Descendants is – a good movie.

I know I am really late on this film, but like I mentioned before, Clooney’s films are very hit or miss for me so I am almost never in a rush to see the latest from Stacy Keibler’s lesser half.  Fortunately, this one earns him a checkmark in the plus column as it is a compelling story featuring strong acting, good directing, and nice cinematography.  The plot of the movie finds Clooney’s Matt King juggling the imminent death of his comatose wife, her recently discovered marital indiscretion, his disconnect with his two rapidly maturing daughters, and an impending real estate deal that will greatly affect the local economy in Hawaii.  Clearly, the man has a lot on his plate.

So what works best about this movie is Clooney and his ability to shed his celebrity baggage and immerse himself into a role that runs counter to everything that people tend to admire about him.  His Matt King is a conflicted man running short on both confidence and bravado, seemingly lost and vulnerable on many fronts both personally and professionally.  Though the plot of the film is highly layered and very unique, the sense of self-doubt and the tormenting search for answers that Clooney’s King endures is a profoundly universal experience and that is what is so engaging about this movie.  Reinforcing this inner struggle is the Hawaiian Islands as a backdrop as the confines of this geographical region heightens the sense of isolationism that permeates King’s life.

One of the other challenges to this film is the importance of Patrice Hastie as Elizabeth King.  Since her entire body of work in this movie involves lying motionless in a hospital bed, it is left to the supporting players to lend a voice to her character and create depth.  Robert Forster, Rob Huebel, Mary Birdsong, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, and Nick Krause perform admirably in this capacity and add color to Clooney’s struggles through the portrayal of their own respective coping mechanisms.  As for Shailene Woodley (Alexandra King), she is perfectly cast as Clooney’s petulant and defiant teen so much so that you wonder whether the seams between performance and reality actually exist.  Hers is the right character to act as the sidekick for Matt King on this emotional journey and their relationship acts as one of the key elements of catharsis.

Now having the seen the film, I have to admit that I am not sure it is worthy of all the platitudes lavished upon it during last year’s awards season.  Don’t get me wrong.  Writer/Director Alexander Payne has put together a well-executed film that is constantly tugging at your emotions and sensibilities.  But I think the film is just that; a good (not great) movie that tells a very personal story, with solid direction, and some very strong acting.  None of this is a bad thing, but in some ways I think the critical masses convinced themselves that they were seeing something in this film that wasn’t necessarily there - as I believe was the case with Clooney’s last critically acclaimed movie – Up in the Air.  Still, if you have not seen this one, I would definitely recommend renting it since well-executed films have been in short supply as of late.  This one may not be a game changer, but you will most definitely find yourself engaged and invested.

Standout Performance: George Clooney.  I am partial to his work in Ocean’s Eleven and in O Brother, Where Art Though? but he does a very good job of disappearing into this role.


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