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March 20, 2012

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On DVD/Blu-ray – Review: The Descendants (2011)

by NIR SHALEV

The Descendants has three stories that overlap stealthily. In the first story, Matt King (George Clooney), a lawyer by trade is tasked with selling thousands of acres of Hawaiian land that his family has owned for generations, dating back to the reign of King Kamehameha. There are many willing buyers and he needs to choose one to sell to. The second story has Matt taking his oldest daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) out of private school so that she could help him raise her younger sister Scottie (Amara Miller) because their mother is in a coma. The third story deals with Matt finding out through Alexandra that his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) had cheated on him for many years.

All three stories co-exist simultaneously and blend together perfectly. They develop naturally, like acts in a play, and never feel forced or soap opera-ish. There are elements to the film that deliver comedy, in the form of Alex’s friend Sid, a moronic, obnoxious surfer dude and when the family travels to another island to find out who Elizabeth was having an affair with and to spy on him. There are also elements of drama, like Matt’s father-in-law Scott (Robert Forster) who believes deep down in his heart that his daughter was a saint. Matt doesn’t have the guts to break Scott’s heart with honest truth.

What we have here is a film that deals with honesty and betrayal, deals with growing up, and deals with facing death. Finally, in the character of Matt, it deals with being entirely oblivious to everything that surrounds one. In other words, sometimes it’s a heavy film and sometimes a light one. Clooney gives an Oscar-nominated performance, one that I believe he should have won for, and the rest of the cast also deliver fresh, entertaining performances with realism.

Alexander Payne is a terrific writer/director that came onto the scene with the great Election (1999), the fun yet melancholy About Schmidt (2002), and the masterful Sideways (2004). What those films have in common is that they’re steeped in the indie film look and feel, the roots that Payne began his career in. With The Descendants Payne evolves into a more traditional Hollywood filmmaker. It looks and feels more like a Hollywood film; the music, although mostly Hawaiian and relaxing, is atmospheric rather than humorous; and the film overall is seeped in Hollywood storytelling and powerful Hollywood performances.

I don’t care if I sound repetitive: The most important reason for watching this film is Clooney’s masterful, melancholic performance of a father who’s afraid of raising two children alone because he wasn’t around during their early childhood. His face is always very expressive and his performance feels real, like we’re watching a person and not a character. And although he has very little screen time, Robert Forster is also terrific in the film.

This is a great film and one of last year’s 10 best films. I just wish that I’d watched it last year so that I could have placed it on my top 10 list.

The DVD comes with three behind-the-scenes featurettes but the Blu-ray comes with deleted scenes; seven behind-the-scenes featurettes; three music videos; and Silent Film: The World Parade – Hawaii; and A Conversation with George Clooney and Alexander Payne.

New releases this week and last: The Adventures of Tintin, Carnage, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Happy Feet Two, Melancholia, The Muppets, The Sitter, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Three Musketeers


2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Miriam
    Mar 20 2012

    I liked this, and certainly agree with you that Clooney gives an excellent, completely convincing performance. Forster is very good in a small role, and I thought Woodley as the older daughter developed the character well.

    The story seemed over-complicated, though, as though Payne couldn’t decide what to leave out. The land sale story was hopelessly contrived and simplistic. Payne seems to be a decent writer but I don’t understand the cult.

    I thought the music was one of the best things about the movie, really wonderful use of the many sounds of Hawaiian music. And I truly loved the final scene. You can call me inconsistent because it is a totally contrived writer’s scene, but it was my favorite moment in the movie.

  2. Mar 20 2012

    I found the final scene to be artsy without drawing attention to itself or being pretentious (but it’s noticeably artsy so it’s paradoxical). :O)

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