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Published on January 24th, 2012 | by willok

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Movie Review: The Descendants

‘The Descendants’ is a quiet film, set over a few days, which sees Matt (George Clooney), as patriarch to his own immediate family and trustee of the interests of extended family, confronted with a wife suddenly in a coma and a realisation that he is ill-equipped to guide his daughters through this nor any other crisis to come. Nothing about the movie is overdone – there is no overacting, no simplification, no unneeded exposition. The film opens with a voice over narration, which can sometimes throw up flare shots of poor story to come; in this case it is scene-setting and puts Matt’s crisis front and centre before letting the film unfurl of its own accord.

Very often with family drama, or at least this particular brand of State-side family dysfunction, put out by the likes of Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach at this time of the year, the individual in crisis can often be an unengaging one, whether by virtue of being self-destructive beyond redemption, too middle-class to care about or a waster. Alexander Payne, on directing duties here, last put two middle-aged men through a crisis in ‘Sideways’, which was a critical darling, but at its core were two unlikeable men. The characters of ‘The Descendants’ should suffer no such ignominy – Clooney, in a vehicle perfectly suited to him, portrays a character dragged from a background role to a sudden state of responsible flux but his good intentions earns the audiences sympathy and empathy; his interaction with and concern for his daughters makes you genuinely care for the family unit and commit to a film which is light on structure. He may very well win the Best Actor Oscar this year, of course a decision linked to politics as much as talent, but for all the powerhouse acting of Leo and Fassbender, his mix of poised and charged delivery is deserving of much praise. Clooney is surrounded by a winning cast – the actresses playing his daughters, in particular Shailene Woodley as older sibling Alex, are remarkably natural and distinct characters. To watch Woodley, flit from testing teenager to reliable companion and sounding board for her father is a true highlight of the film.

The intertwining strands of the story, each conspiring to give Matt much to dwell on and fluster at, are littered with rich characters courtesy of small roles for Robert Foster, Beau Bridges and Matthew Lillard that could each be a worthwhile lead in a parallel movie. (The shock of Shaggy from Scooby Doo being a love rival for George Clooney does pass, eventually). From the paceful and eventful story, an ongoing question over a sale of land and the links of Clooney’s screen family to Hawaiian ancestry bubbles under throughout – indeed it forms the basis for the title of the movie. The resolution and impact of this strand is muddied slightly – a crucial decision by Matt late in the film seems linked to aspiration and respect for family but you can’t help wonder if there is an unspoken vengeful motivation in his decision also. These understated moments might call for a second viewing; what is evident from a first is that there is complexity to these few days captured in the movie. At one point Matt admonishes his comatose wife for a betrayal but cannot allow his daughter show a similar disdain. He looks to do the right thing and see the right thing done, despite his own confused fallibility. The film certainly has a natural end, but its body is moreso a stringing together of wonderfully articulate moments and actions. The snapshots have a serious hue but many are tempered with a rarely captured mix of comedy – neither black, contrived, farcical or shallow – it is real and a treat.

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