Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Review: The Descendants

Rating: 15
Duration: 115 mins

It's just shy of seven years since Alexander Payne gifted us the comedy drama Sideways, as he announces his return with a quaint drama that's generated heaps of Oscar buzz - having already nabbed the Golden Globes for Best Picture and Actor - and is sure to bag some big awards come February 26th.

In honesty, it would be no surprise to see The Descendants waltz off with success, and not merely because George Clooney puts in a powerhouse performance either. Payne constructs a screenplay that delves into the deepest depths of the soul, as it explores how a family cope with loss,  betrayal, emptiness and tragedy.

Matt King (Clooney) resides in Hawaii with his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) and two daughters, Alex (Shailene Woodley), and younger sibling Scottie (Amara Miller). However, when Elizabeth is involved in a serious water skiing accident and left in a coma, Matt must pick up the pieces and assume the sole parental role; one that he is completely unfamiliar with, having spent most of his days heavily focused on his law practice and land baron duties imposed onto him by family descendants. 

As the grieving three are forced to re-connect, on some initial level at least, it becomes apparent just how much Matt struggles because of his cluelessness in regards to his girls. What Payne illustrates brilliantly are the inadequacies of a man who is incapable of emotionally relating to his children; a man that struggles to deal with revelations concerning his wife, as well as the idea of losing her. 

Payne masterfully writes and directs Clooney's character who is suddenly thrown into the deep end of parental responsibility and forced to take control, whilst succumbing to his own grief. In fact, it isn't just Clooney that makes this work so wonderfully, but the aide of Woodley, Miller and Nick Krause (who plays Alex's best friend, Sid) who allow each personality to interact, bounce off, and gel with the subtly consistent  character development. There is very little to criticise in regards to the acting ability or plot: pacing is fluid, comedy and dramatic elements are perfectly balanced, too.

Perhaps the most important, and arguably poignant, scene is where Matt asks the seemingly immature and uncouth Sid, for advice. This is the point where it hits home that Matt is struggling to cope with everything going on, but also alters Sid's character dramatically from annoying douche into mature confidant; and it's these turning points and moments of despondency that add genuine heart to a film that'll make you laugh-out-loud and just as quickly have you in floods of tears. It really is that finely balanced, as it takes you on the emotional rollercoaster alongside Clooney's character. 

The only elements that perhaps scupper a very strong movie is the way things conclude too neatly; Payne packages a palpable ending that feels a little clean-cut, considering the emotional turmoil of the proceeding narrative. That said, it's a satisfying finale to a more than satisfying story, yet one cannot help but feel Matt's agitated and agenda-driven persona should have seen him mess up on more occasions and create some longer lasting problems rather than the flippant, inconsequential ones that blow over. Some irreparable damage might have made Matt more relatable, but wouldn't have made him, or indeed the film, as tonally appealing as it is.  

From a director's stance, the composition of shots are beautifully juxtaposed by the serene soundtrack. The surroundings are visually stunning as Payne takes full advantage of this to complement the subtlety of the acting that equates to a most pleasurable filmic experience.

VERDICT: The Descendants is a wonderfully engaging drama that boasts a lot of funny moments and some utterly sad ones, too. Clooney is marvellous and is sure to be in strong contention for an Oscar for a troubled, yet touching performance. However, the story isn't quite as hard-hitting or problematic as it could have been; specifically our lead's decisions and subsequent actions.