Film reviews and more since 2009

The Descendants (2011) review

Dir. Alexander Payne

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★★

“Paradise can go f*** itself.” – George Clooney, The Descendants.

This is my introduction to director Alexander Payne’s work, and hopefully, I will have many more run-ins with his work in years to come. The Descendants is a non-sugarcoated, honest, and a realistic view of society held together with captivating performances of all ages, incredible dialog, and direction that holds together up until the final shot which some may not expect.

The story follows Matt King (Clooney), a man living in Hawaii with two kids; a ten year old troublemaker named Scottie (Miller) and a seventeen year old rebel named Alexandra (Woodley). Lately, Matt has been under and uncanny amount of stress. His wife is in the hospital after being involved in a boating accident. She is now rendered comatose, and Matt is forced to look after his ten year old, before calling in his seventeen year old to help him out.

On top of this, Matt is a very wealthy relator, trying to shy away from the luxury that his money can buy so his girls can grow up and not be spoiled and selfish. Problem is they developed those traits without the money. Matt is inches away from signing away 25,000 acres of land on Hawaii’s island of Kaua’i he garnered from his royal ancestors. Doing this will make him wealthier and he has been contemplating this decision without rest until his wife is in the hospital.

When things can’t seem to get any worse, Alexandra drops a bombshell on her father that his wife was cheating on him before the accident. Matt is shocked, outraged, and demanding to find the man behind his wife’s infidelity. Clooney is astounding, and he proves to us why he is one of the best actors in the business today. He drifts believably into anger, sorrow, frustration, and acceptance during all this, and plays the character of a stressed father in such a realistic fashion it’s almost breathtaking.

Shailene Woodley is also fantastic as Matt’s daughter. She starts out as your typical daughter, but slowly morphs into a more recognizable human being rather than just a caricature, which is what most teenagers end up becoming in films like these.

Hawaii serves as the co-star in the film. It’s not supposed to, but it is. The reason being is the film tries to show its audience that Hawaii is no better on people than the mainlands are. Sometimes we get the impression in our heads that people in Hawaii are living the dream. The fact of the matter is, as narrated by Clooney exquisitely in the beginning, they aren’t immune to sadness, their cancer isn’t less deadly, and their problems any less serious.

Why I’m praising The Descendants so greatly is because it’s very easy to do a film like this poorly. The script is the key to a film like this, and if believability isn’t reached and performances not cooperative with the material it could easily spiral into a whirlwind of cliches and mediocrity. Thankfully, The Descendants ignores that, and it showcases honesty and the ups and downs of every day life maturely and effectively. It also takes time with its character so we’re introduced, and the cheater isn’t discovered until later in the film which shows that the film had a laidback sense and is not forcing plot points down a person’s throat.

Many emotions are brought to the table. Seeing a good movie is never something I’m upset about, but sometimes, some films are so depressing, while well done, it makes for an iffy rewatch. The Descendants has much needed elements of humor, sad sequences, and heavy drama support all compiled into a brilliant script. And if you can really pick out the subtle messages in the ending, it’s a happy one.

The Descendants is fantastic, and Clooney’s best work since in quite a few years. He shows us why he deserves the Oscars he’s won, and why his publicity is worthy and not in any way undeserving or obtrusive. The whole thing is so pleasing and so well written even in its darkest hour that it should be the lesson to those inspiring to one day create a great, Oscar-worthy drama. For that it should be looked as a resource and not a blueprint.

NOTE: As of this writing, The Descendants is available to rent on multiple platforms.

REVIEWS OF OTHER ALEXANDER PAYNE FILMS:
My review of Sideways (2004)
My review of Nebraska (2013)
My review of Downsizing (2017)
My review of The Holdovers

Starring: George Clooney, Amara Miller, Shailene Woodley, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Nick Krause, and Beau Bridges. Directed by: Alexander Payne.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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