The Port Arthur News
Director Alexander Payne hasn’t made a movie since “Sideways” hit theaters in 2004. That’s far too long of an absence, especially considering that his new film, “The Descendants” is one of the top films of the year and features George Clooney’s best work ever. Remember, Clooney already has one Academy Award on his shelf. After this film, he should be the odds on favorite to win a second statue.
Based on Kaui Hart Hemming’s novel, “The Descendants” finds Clooney playing Matt King, a laid-back lawyer living in Hawaii. His family owns a large tract of land in Kauai, and Matt is in charge of deciding whether to sell the property to developers or hold on to it for a few more years. It’s a tough decision, made even more difficult when tragedy strikes and a boating accident knocks Matt’s estranged wife into a coma.
Matt is a self-professed absentee husband and father, and the accident forces him to reconnect with his two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) as they inform family and friends about his wife’s condition. Complicating matters is the revelation that Matt’s wife had been having an affair with a local real estate agent. Matt decides to confront his wife’s lover, but he’s unsure of what will happen when he finally tracks the man down.
That storyline sounds rather bleak, but “The Descendants” is actually a comedy — albeit a very dark one. The film features some very funny moments as the characters deal with their grief and betrayal through unexpected, but very humorous outbursts. Credit writer/director Payne and his superb cast for uniformly nuanced performances that will make you laugh, but never threaten to make the movie into just a silly sitcom.
As I mentioned, Clooney is superb in the main role, playing a man who’s trying to keep his cool while his world is turned upside down. Shailene Woodley is just as good, playing Matt’s foul-mouthed daughter who starts out as a typical, angry teenager but grows to become her father’s confederate as they search for a way to deal with their grief. Judy Greer, Nick Krause and Robert Forster are also great in smaller roles where they each get to shine in a few powerful scenes.
As good as the cast is, Alexander Payne is the real talent behind “The Descendants.” He’s one of the best at crafting flawed characters who are redeemed thanks to the his ability to inject warmth and humor into the story. It’s all very subtle, as Payne takes his time telling the story. It’s a leisurely exercise, but one that slowly draws you in to the characters’ emotions. By the end of the film, you’ll be totally invested in these characters.
That’s the mark of an amazing director, and one who’s been missed for far too long. Hopefully we won’t have to wait seven years for his next movie.
Movie reviews by Sean, “The Movie Guy,” are published bi-weekly in “The Port Arthur News” and seen weekly on KFDM-TV and KBOI 2-TV. Sean welcomes your comments via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.