Review of The Descendants

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After a boating accident puts his wife in a coma, a Hawaiian land baron (played by George Clooney) takes his daughters on a trip from Oahu to Kauai to confront the young real estate broker (Matthew Lillard) who was having an affair with her before her misfortune. Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings.
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Movie Review: "The Descendants"

--Rating: R (disturbing images, violence)
Length: 119 minutes
Release Date: December 9, 2011
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Genre: Drama/Comedy

"The Descendents" is a rare movie that manages to deftly balance both comedy and bittersweet drama without coming off as sappy or unfocused. It is based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings that describes the emotional fallout and discoveries that occur when Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie) falls into a coma after a boating accident.

Elizabeth's dutiful but largely absentee husband Matt (George Clooney) must now take care of the family while his wife is in hospital. He clearly loves his family but is completely wrapped up in his work as a lawyer and trustee of a huge parcel of family land worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The accident happens as the deadline to sell the land nears, throwing two big problems in Matt's lap. The movie spends the rest of the time showing how Matt deals with each of these problems in turn. The more pressing issue is with his two daughters, Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), who are practically strangers to their father while living in the same house with him.

Matt admits in one of many voice-overs that he was the backup or understudy parent. He doesn't even know what day the pool cleaner comes to the house. He brings a surly Alex back home from boarding school to help with Scottie. As it turns out, Matt is the one she really needs to help. She reveals to him that she knew her mother was having an affair before the accident.

Even though Matt was largely distant from his wife, this revelation hits him hard. He takes off running in the street to Elizabeth's best friend Kai's (Mary Birdsong) house, where she reveals that she knew about the affair. This scene of Matt awkwardly running to Kai's house in flip flop sandals is a true testament not only to Clooney's physical acting abilities but also his willingness to shed his suave movie star persona for the sake of the performance.

As it turns out, not only was Elizabeth having an affair, but she also wanted to leave Matt for her lover Brian (Matthew Lillard). These secrets spill out just as the doctor tells the family what they feared the most: Elizabeth will never come out of her coma. She will never be able to answer for the affair. Matt would be left with all of his questions forever.

He decides to track down Brian to tell him about Elizabeth, giving him an opportunity to say goodbye to Elizabeth before she dies. The family flies to another island for a short vacation/secret stakeout mission to find Brian. It turns out that Brian has a wife, Julie (Judy Greer), and two kids. He was with Elizabeth solely to get to Matt in the hopes of scoring a big commission from the multi-million dollar family estate sale.

Although this is his romantic rival, you can tell that Matt feels sorry for Elizabeth at that moment. She was in love and ready to break up her family for a man who had no intention of doing the same for her. It is at this moment that the audience truly senses that Matt has changed. He clearly wants to be a better man, which begins with being a better parent.

As the movie progresses, Matt does get closer to his daughters. It is a testament to Hemmings (who has a cameo as Matt's secretary) and the four screenwriters that this transition from understudy to head parent is not forced or rushed. With every forgiving glance and embrace, the audience feels the ice melting between Matt and the girls. The entire transition feels real and authentic, which is a testament to Clooney, Woodley and Miller.

Despite the great acting performances, the most emotional scene goes to Greer as Brian's scorned wife. Usually a comic player, Greer displays big dramatic acting chops while breaking down in front of the dying Elizabeth's hospital bed. Don't be surprised to see Greer get more dramatic roles thrown her way after her small but pivotal role.

Director Payne has crafted a quiet, nuanced film that doesn't need a lot of action or shots of the scenic Hawaiian background to be affecting. It may very well be his best work to date, which is saying a lot considering he directed gems like "Sideways" and "Election." One can only hope that he doesn't take seven years between movies again to give audiences such a beautifully bittersweet slice of life like "The Descendents."