It's a shock to realize Alexander Payne's last movie ("Sideways") came out seven years ago. It still feels like it came out yesterday! But the writer/director proves he hasn't lost his touch with "The Descendants," which is based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings.
It once again has him dealing with a middle-aged man who is forced to reassess his life in the wake of a possibly irreversible tragedy. While it may seem like familiar territory for Payne -- who also made "About Schmidt," among other movies -- the writing, acting, and direction appear so flawless that it stands out as one of the best movies of 2011.
George Clooney, in what appears to be his annual Oscar-worthy movie, stars as Matt King, whose wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is in a coma after a speedboat accident. Seeing himself as a "backup parent," he is forced to deal with his two daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), who keep getting into various kinds of troubles. As things look increasingly bleak for Elizabeth, Matt soon discovers she had an affair, which shakes up his perception of everything. He ends up journeying to Kauai to seek the man who was with her out and make him aware of his wife's condition.
Just when you think Clooney has given his best performance ever, he hits yet another one out of the park. He brilliantly inhabits the character of Matt; his eyes end up speaking a thousand words as he deals with the most tragically unfortunate of circumstances. You never really catch Clooney acting here, which is what makes his performance so good. Matt King is not perfect and has his problems, but Clooney makes you feel for him: You can see that he's doing the best he can with his daughters.
Truth be told, there is not a weak performance to be found in "The Descendants" no matter how small a role may seem. Actors like Robert Forster, Beau Bridges, Judy Greer, and Matthew Lillard of all people do amazing work with what they are given. But two performances deserving of special mention are from Woodley and Miller as King's daughters.
Woodley, best known for her work on "The Secret Life of the American Teenager," is a revelation as Alexandra, who has become a jaded teenager in relation to her parents' problems. Like Clooney, she inhabits her role to where Alexandra feels fresh and unique, not just some clichéd bad girl who typically ends up in a movie like this.
Miller is also wonderful, as she makes Scottie a unique and very realistic girl we all know from childhood. Her acting out over her mother's deteriorating condition is utterly believable, and you never catch her faking an emotion whenever she's onscreen.
Payne does brilliant work in bringing all the elements of this movie together to where you cannot spot a single flaw. His passion for exploring character complexities is very much on display, and it makes for one of the most emotionally involving movies of 2011. Even if you've seen this kind of movie a hundred times, in Payne's hands it is an unforgettable journey and the kind Hollywood doesn't make enough of. It feels wonderfully unique in a sea of so many movies out there that it is imperative you give it your full attention.
* * * * out of * * * *See also:
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