Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Descendants

The Descendants - ****

Directed by: Alexander Payne

Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Matthew Lillard

Review:  Death in the family is a precarious situation.  Speaking even more specifically, a death within an immediate family is even more delicate.  From the moment the title card breaks, this is the situation the King family finds itself in.  The matriarch of the family was tossed off a speed boat, hit her head, and now finds herself teetering on the brink of death being kept alive mostly by machines. 

Naturally, any situation like this will send ripples through a family.  With the King family, patriarch Matt (Clooney) finds himself in a situation he is all together much too unfamiliar with.  Beyond his wife being in dire straights, he now has to keep watch over his two kids, whom he isn’t that close with.  Matt is a high powered lawyer in the state of Hawai’i and hasn’t had that much time to be a family man.  Seeing his wife in such a predicament, Matt has vowed to change those ways. 

Trying to re-ignite the relationship with his children proves to be more challenging that he was prepared for.  Years of being the so-called “back up parent” has led to him having not much more than a passing role in their lives.  His kids look upon him mostly as a caretaker in this time of need.  His youngest child only seems to want to talk about all the things she’s going to do with her mother once she wakes up. 

It’s an interesting paradigm.  Often times when someone spends the majority of their time working, they justify it by saying it’s for their family.  It’s a rude awakening to realize that what might have been best for the family would be to actually be there for them.  Matt’s oldest daughter has drug and drinking problems.  His wife had drinking issues and an aversion to the ‘daredevil’ lifestyle before her accident.  His youngest daughter seemingly doesn’t recognize him as an authority figure.  As the “back up parent” he only comes in and provides fun.  This leads to his daughter viewing him, not as a parent, but as a “fun uncle” or something of that sort.

This isn’t even the biggest of all the changes.  When the doctor tells Matt his wife will not wake up, he is crushed.  Making matters worse, he finds out shortly after that she was cheating on him.  Not only that, but he was apparently the only person who didn’t know about it.

His years of constant working and fastidious living led his wife astray.  He promised things would change when she woke, but he won’t have that chance now.  His decisions have been made and now he must live with them.

Complicating all of this even further is Matt’s current family situation.  As descendants of the Hawai’in king Kamehameha, Matt’s family owns a plot of gorgeous land on the Oahu coast.  Due to complicated legal reasons, the family will have to sell the land which is largely unused.  The people buying it will turn it into spectacular resorts and golf courses.  Matt’s family is inherently tied to this land and has been for generations.  Once this plot is sold, that connection will have been severed.

This sub plot seems as though it may be distracting, but serves to underplay the larger issues brilliantly.  Ultimately, Matt’s story is about connections.  Those made, those had, and those lost.  He has a connection to his land.  He had a connection to his wife.  Over time, he has lost the connection to his spouse and family.

The delayed death of his wife via coma, has given Matt a pause to his life.  Now, he has the ability to think about the connections he has in his life like never before.  Family has established a new importance to him.  He can’t just buy their happiness, he must be their happiness.  Family is not something you can pick up and drop off, it permeates your existence.

It took his wife’s coma and death for Matt to realize this.  His connections are what define him.  His wife was running around on him because he lost his definition.  Clooney’s Matt goes around his life with a look of surprise at everything.  He is completely lost in his own world.  Thinking he had a grip on his reality, Matt no longer knows what his life is.  The performance is nothing short of brilliant.

Although not a huge fan of the style of Alexander Payne, his writing and directing here is top notch.  The writing is sharp, but not unrealistic.  His control over his actors and their situations is outstanding, truly a phenomenal job here.  This may just be the best film of the year.

This is definitely worth your time.

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