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Review: The Descendants

Published: February 2, 2012, 2:15 am ET
Guest Columnist

“Everybody on the mainland thinks that because I live in Hawaii, I live in Paradise … Are they insane?”

As Ricky Gervais drunkenly reminded me at the Golden Globes, the awards season has begun, and with the Oscars fast approaching, I wanted to watch a movie that would be nominated in a slew of categories. “The Descendants” trailer sold the movie as a George Clooney-driven dramedy that had the potential to do just that.

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor and a ton of other categories at this year’s Golden Globes, The Descendants features Clooney as Matt King, a real estate lawyer who deals with the death of his wife, the return of his troubled daughter, Alex (Shailene Woodley), from boarding school, and the emerging problems of his foul-mouthed 10-year-old daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller).

Directed by Alexander Payne of “Sideways” fame, “The Descendants” is a dark comedy filled with tense moments, as the family watches their comatose mother wither away on her death bed, and Matt discovers that his wife was having an affair and planning to leave him.

The film revolves around finding the man who his wife cheated with and confronting him, while also dealing with the sale of a 25,000 acre property in Hawaii entrusted to the King family by Matt’s father.

Selling the property would give everyone in the family a large amount of money, but would be bad for the state of Hawaii and would toss another resort on untouched land.

Through these difficult situations, Matt and his family get closer, and the viewer gets to watch the turmoil going on in Matt’s mind unfold on the screen.

The monologue by Clooney that opens the film sets the tone for what Payne is trying to accomplish: explore Hawaii as something other than the sunny vacation paradise that it is perceived as by outsiders. Just because Hawaii is beautiful, which Payne shows through numerous wide shots of the island, does not mean that life there is without its problems.

The cast shows the grim reality of their situations, and Clooney shows why he is a Best Actor nominee again. Clooney is getting older, and he uses this to his advantage in the film, comically jogging and running out of breath shortly after starting, but for most of the film he plays a calm, good-natured person who is just trying to figure out his life.

Most of the laughs in the film come from unexpected punches, curse words and camera shots, but the driving force of the film is drama. If you are expecting something like “Up in the Air,” which is the opposite, look elsewhere.

The conclusion of the film is typical of an Oscar contender, and the movie left me satisfied, but underwhelmed. I left feeling as though the film was pretty much what I expected because it did not leave the confines of the typical drama.

The writing was terse, but standard and lacked the wittiness that I grew to expect after seeing Payne’s work in “Sideways.” The film seemed to be an homage to Hawaiian landscapes, Hawaiian shirts that flooded business meetings and Hawaiian, well maybe not Hawaiian, familial issues.

If you have the time, want something to watch and like the indie-flick vibe, then “The Descendants” is a good way to kill two hours, but if not, wait to see if it wins an Oscar, (which I doubt it will), then run out and watch it so you can appear cultured.

Contact columnist Zack Russell at zack.russell@richmond.edu.

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