The Descendants is about Matt King, a lawyer from Honolulu that goes home to his family after his wife went into a coma. He decides to reconnect with his distant older daughter as well as to his other daughter. In the process, it is revealed to him that his wife was having an extramarital affair while Matt was away. Particularly, Matt’s wife was with his man when she was in the boating accident that caused her comatose situation. This revealed to be the reason why his older daughter becomes rebellious and angry to her mother. In the process, Matt deals with the different people that he must meet as the condition of his wife worsens.
This is my first Alexander Payne film, so I did not know what to expect. His filmography is mostly composed of films that tackle small slices of life, often times dealing with simple people living simple lives until they decide to shake things up, intentionally or not. And as I saw it, I believed that the story is under control someone who knows how to do these kinds of stories. I felt the sincerity in the treatment of the material, featuring no level of artifice and pretense. However, while I think that the execution of the material feels true, it does make for an almost lifeless experience which is not really a good thing since the film is supposed to be a slice of life.
While the film has its good, sometimes touching moments, it is to be credited more on the well-written screenplay delivered by strong performances. There were parts when I did not care anymore on what is happening. The film felt dragging and pointless at times, a feeling that I should not have felt with the film in the first place because the concept itself is interesting. I admit that I tend to lean towards film spectacles than simple stories, but I definitely appreciate them as well. As a matter of fact, I loved both Sideways and Nebraska. However, this film just did not do it for me which is quite puzzling since Payne has made films that are also simple yet soulful.
Technical-wise, this is a sound film, containing adept and unobtrusive cinematography that captures both the beauty and simplicity of Hawaii as well as apt editing. The music is appropriate, giving the film the aural dimension of the setting. However, none of these technical aspects of the film can remove the feeling of dryness contained in the film. Because the film focused more on the small events that compose human life, the greatest thing one can hope for is for the audience to connect to the story. Unfortunately, the film at times was a chore to watch because it was not able to channel enough emotional weight for me to care about the film that much.
One thing that puts the movie together and I think is its greatest asset is George Clooney in a performance that asks him to be as human and as grounded as possible. The role of Matt King demands Clooney to go through a lot of inner turmoil as his conflicts are often kept to himself either due to his anger is directed towards someone who cannot respond or someone who is literally far from him. The role also demands him to become an everyday man that must be conflicted and at the same time, controlled. It really is a ray of hope every time Clooney unleashes his skill in acting dramatic, comedic, as well as a careful mix of the two in crucial scenes. Clooney delivers one of his great performances, along with his works in Michael Clayton and Up in the Air.
The supporting actors, particularly the women, also fare well, with Judy Greer as the wife of the paramour of Matt’s wife, delivering a subtle and sincere performance, as well as Shailene Woodley as the tough yet conflicted daughter of Matt, chiseling her rebellion with disappointment and frustrations. In the end, however, it is all about George Clooney bringing truth and honesty to his role that gives the life of the film.
I have no problems with films that rely a lot on the strength of the performances of its actors. However, it is a sad thing to see the actors really doing strong work, particularly Clooney, while the film is almost a soulless wreck. It is entertaining and funny at times, and the last twenty minutes are undeniably touching. However, this can be all credited to the cast who is doing fine acting. It is also a letdown that Payne can actually deliver stories like this and make them into great films.
It is a good film, but the frontrunner status it had during the 2011 awards season still puzzles me.
For this, the film gets:
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