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"THE DESCENDANTS"
(2011) (George Clooney, Shailene Woodley) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Dramedy: While contemplating selling his family's thousands of acres of unspoiled Hawaiian land, a real estate lawyer must contend with his wife's comatose state and the effect that has on his family.
PLOT:
Matt King (GEORGE CLOONEY) is a successful real estate lawyer whose lineage goes back many generations in Hawaii. He's the trustee in charge of thousands of acres of unspoiled land and due to settings in that trust, the land must be sold. Matt's many cousins, including Hugh (BEAU BRIDGES), want him to sell to a developer now, but Matt's had other things on his mind.

Namely, that's the fact that his wife, Elizabeth (PATRICIA HASTIE), is now in a coma following a boating accident and it doesn't appear she's going to be coming out of it. As a result, and despite some help from friends such as Kai (MARY BIRDSONG) and Mark (ROB HUEBEL), Matt is now the sole caretaker of his 10-year-old daughter, Scottie (AMARA MILLER), who's following in her 17-year-old sister Alexandra's (SHAILENE WOODLEY) footsteps of becoming a troublemaker.

Alexandra goes to school on another island and Matt thinks it would be a good idea to bring her home, especially since the doctor has announced Elizabeth is now in a perpetual vegetative state and, due to her medical directive, will soon have to be taken off life support. While Matt can't bring himself to tell Scottie just yet, they and Alexandra's offbeat friend, Sid (NICK KRAUSE), head off to inform Elizabeth's parents, Scott (ROBERT FORSTER) and his dementia-stricken wife, Alice (BARBARA L. SOUTHERN), of the bad news.

While torn by this turn of events, Alexandra still holds a grudge against her mom, mainly because she became aware of her having an affair with real estate agent Brian Speer (MATTHEW LILLARD), despite him being married to Julie (JUDY GREER) with two kids. As Matt prepares for his wife's death and news of that affair, all while also dealing with the land sale issue, he tries to rebuild a better relationship with his daughters.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
At the beginning of the dramedy "The Descendants," real estate lawyer Matt King (superbly played by George Clooney) laments how most people have only idyllic vacation thoughts about his home state of Hawaii. It's true, not only for there, but also any vacation spot where people travel for some rest and relaxation.

And that's because they're living -- if just for a few days, a week and maybe even longer if they're lucky -- a life that isn't "real." By that, I mean they don't have to deal with the boring day to day routines of their existence and the headaches that often accompany that such as, well, having to work to make money.

Mike certainly isn't hurting for money as he seems fairly well-off, and he's the trustee for thousands of acres of land that have been passed down through the generations of his family and will likely be sold soon to a developer. The trials and tribulations of real life, however, are present, and he's received quite a reality check wallop of recent.

You see, his wife (Patricia Hastie) -- with whom he's grown apart over the years -- is now unexpectedly in a comatose state following a boating accident. As a result, he now has to actually father their 10-year-old daughter (Amara Miller) who seems to be following in the troublemaker path already paved by her 17-year-old sister (Shailene Woodley) who's off living at a boarding school on another island.

Since it doesn't appear their mom is going to make it, he must break the news to his in-laws (Robert Forster and Barbara L. Southern) and friends (including Mary Birdsong and Rob Huebel), all while the 17-year-old's offbeat friend (a funny Nick Krause) tags along for moral support. And as life is prone to do, insult is added to injury when Mike learns that his wife was having an affair with a real estate agent (Matthew Lillard), unbeknownst to that man's wife (Judy Greer).

That might sound like a rather depressing state of affairs and a fairly miserable way to spend around two hours of your life. But director Alexander Payne -- returning for the first time to the screen in six years following his success with "Sideways" (he also directed "About Schmidt" and "Election") -- makes it all go down quite easily by mixing in heaping doses of humor, satire and characters one not only believes are real, but who also end up engaging the viewer.

Working from the screenplay adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel he co-penned with Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, Payne deftly balances the elements to prevent the film from ever veering too far in any particular direction and thus run the risk of traveling so far down any given path as to be unable to return. Although some viewers (and critics) might find that combination of elements as superficial and/or glib, it just about worked perfectly for yours truly, meaning the film -- at least so far -- is among the top of my favorites of 2011.

And as much of that obviously lies on the shoulders of Payne and his writers, the part that's most necessary for success and obviously visible (aside from the glorious and oft-repeated vistas of Hawaiian land) are the performances. I've always liked Clooney as he brings an everyman type persona to his characters even if they're larger than life, and his work here is spot on. While the potential nominees list will likely become far more crowded in the next month and a half, I'd say he's a shoo-in for some major award nominations for his work that expertly touches on any number of emotions through his character's journey here.

Woodley is also quite good playing his teenage daughter, a character who initially appears might be yet another stereotype, but evolves into something far more interesting, and her interaction and chemistry with Clooney is terrific. I wouldn't be surprised if she also gets some supporting performance love from reviewers and Academy voters.

Miller is good as her sisterly protégé, while Krause is a hoot as the teenage girl's somewhat kooky, stoned-surfer type friend (imagine a higher functioning version of Jeff Spicoli). Solid performances also come from Forester as the dad who's the type to keep his gentler emotions in check (while the caustic ones are still free to run rampant); Greer as another spouse who's equally surprised to learn she's been cheated on, and Lillard as the philandering husband.

These sorts of films are often difficult to pull off without alienating viewers for one or more reasons. Yet, Payne and his cast and crew do it with plenty of aplomb and heart. While it might not work for everyone, I found it quite enjoyable, entertaining and touching. "The Descendants" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.




Reviewed November 7, 2011 / Posted November 18, 2011


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