The Descendants

There’s an old saying that goes something like, “Man makes plans and God laughs.”  On its surface, that sounds a bit cruel; but the truth is, none of us knows what the next second holds for us.  We all go through our day with a feeling of control that is nothing but an illusion.  Our lives are dependent on a nearly infinite number of events happening exactly as they should, from the beating of our hearts to the care taken by other drivers with whom we share the road.  One weak link in the chain could bring untold suffering raining down on our heads.  There’s also the chance that someone we love or depend upon could also be buried in the fallout of another’s poor choices.  In this week’s movie, “The Descendants,” George Clooney plays a man whose life has largely been on auto pilot.  Now, he faces the results of choices, both good and bad, that will affect the rest of his life.
Matt King has an enormous amount on his plate.  He’s a lawyer who oversees a family trust controlling 25,000 acres of pristine Hawaiian wilderness that has been in his family for over a century.  A recent change in state law will nullify the trust in seven years.  The family has received offers worth hundreds of millions of dollars from developers wanting to turn the land into resort and retail space.  Matt has the final say on who gets to buy the land.  Matt’s two daughters, 10-year old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), are both a handful.  Scottie has been sending inappropriate text messages to classmates and Alexandra is in a private boarding school for behavioral issues including drinking and drugs.  At Christmas, Alex and her mother Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) had a huge argument that was never resolved.  It never will be, as Elizabeth was injured while participating in a powerboat race and is in a coma.  Doctors tell Matt she will never recover and is brain dead.  Her living will requires her to be removed from life support and Matt is faced with the prospect of being a single father when he was rarely involved in the girl’s lives when his wife was well.  Matt brings Alexandra home from school and tells her about her mother’s impending death.  She tells her father the fight she had with her mom was over a man:  Elizabeth has been having an affair and Alexandra saw the two of them together.  Obsessed with finding his wife’s lover, Matt has Alexandra retrace her steps on the day she saw them.  They drive past a For Sale sign on a house that has a picture of the real estate agent and Alexandra recognizes the man as her mother’s lover.  Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) is a land developer with a wife and children of his own.  Matt tracks Brian down to another of the islands and plans on confronting him as well as giving him an opportunity to say goodbye to Elizabeth.
“The Descendants” most attractive feature is the averageness of the characters on screen.  No one stands out as too beautiful or too smart or too anything.  The entire cast of characters struck me as the kind of people I could meet in my day to day comings and goings.  While these average people are facing extraordinary circumstances, all of their decisions feel real and grounded (with one exception I’ll get to shortly).  All their actions make complete sense.  Even Matt’s desire to find Brian Speer makes sense whether you agree with it or not.  The only decision that struck me as a bit unrealistic is the resolution of the land issue.  Without giving anything away, many people will probably see it as an effort by the filmmakers to make a statement.  It struck me as a bit too precious.
George Clooney sheds most of his sexy personae in “The Descendants.”  His appearance is about as average as it gets.  Clooney, mostly dressed in tasteful Hawaiian print shirts, khaki shorts and sandals, plays Matt as a very plain man with simple needs and wants.  His law office is drab and packed with files and boxes of more files.  His home, while large and comfortable-looking, is no more or less so than any of the other homes we visit.  Clooney’s performance is subtle and nuanced with no excess emotion or flashy dramatics.  He fully embodies a man trying to keep himself together even while his life is trying desperately to pull him apart.  When he says his final goodbye to his wife, Clooney breaks your heart with his mixture of grief, anger and regret.  The film’s main characters are all in a shared experience.  These are people facing the end:  The end of a life, the end of a family legacy and the end of an illusion of a faithful mate.  All these conclusions make for the kind of conflict the audience can relate to.  While the film may fall short on action and adventure, it’s off the chart when it comes to being relatable.
“The Descendants” is rated R for language including some sexual references.  Foul language is at times a large part of the dialog.  It is often used as a method to shock the audience into laughing especially when the 10-year old fires off a dirty word or obscene gesture.
“The Descendants” will not appeal to everyone.  There are no car chases, no nude scenes, no explosions and no murders.  It also isn’t animated nor is it in 3D.  It is a simple story of a man facing a devastating loss and trying to face it with as much dignity and grace as he can.  I can only hope to be as strong if I find myself in similar circumstances.  It is a film well worth your time and may be in the final running during next year’s Oscars.
“The Descendants” gets five guitars out of five.
Holiday romance, career hijinks, deadly mystery and real life and death are on tap at theatres this week.  Vote for the movie you would like me to see and review next.
New Year’s Eve—An all-star cast celebrates love, hope, second chances and fresh starts in intertwining stories on the most dazzling night of the year.
The Sitter—Jonah Hill stars as a suspended college student who gets talked into babysitting the three young misfit kids next door.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—Gary Oldman stars in the adaptation of John LeCarre's classic Cold War-era spy thriller about the hunt for a Soviet double agent.
Into the Abyss:  A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life—A documentary exploring a triple homicide case in Texas with interviews of the victims' families and those convicted for the crime.
Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any film of his choice.
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