REVIEW: The Descendants
It used to be, Tom Hanks was the everyman who took us into one film after another, giving us a chance to experience the mundane to the fantastic. That role in many ways has been ceded to George Clooney, who displays in one film after another, a charismatic vulnerability that makes you root for him regardless of the circumstances. He brings that empathy to Matt King, the lead figure in The Descendants, out this week from 20th Century Home Entertainment.
Yeah, we all now he was nominated for Best Actor but if you haven’t seen the film; you can watch the video and see the actor lose himself in the character. King is married, with two teen children, and has his world rocked, first by the wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) getting sick and then learning she has been having an affair. While she lingers in the hospital, he goes in search of Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), his daughters — Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) — in tow. Kaui Hart Hemmings’ acclaimed novel is well adapted by director Alexander Payne.
Although set on Hawaii, and written by a native, the movie may look gorgeous but the characters are as pained and flawed as we are on the mainland. Matt is basically a decent man, but once the marriage began to crumble, backed away and considered himself the back-up parent until Elizabeth’s boating accident. She’s lingering but the doctors are holding out much hope and her living will says that means the plug will soon be pulled. Meantime, Hawaiian law means the 25,000 pristine acres of land that has been in King’s family for generations now has to be sold to the bidder of his choice. That’s weighing heavily on his mind as everything in his life is crumbling.
The trip in search of Speer allows Matt to reconnect with his daughters, who have themselves suffered from the family’s disintegration. Alex has been a disaster at boarding school, spiraling towards the drain and Woodley makes your heart break for her. Scottie Is clearly lost and acting out by flipping the bird to one and all, expressing frustrations she cannot quite articulate. Elizabeth is seen as the villain by most, but not all the characters, and comes across as a deeply unhappy woman who was looking for the Brass Ring and a better life.
Still, it’s Clooney’s movie and he brings nice shadings to Matt, who is basically a nice guy, who can’t make up his mind what he’ll do when he finds Speer. He is also fair to his wife and wants to give this lover a chance to say his own farewell, a generous gesture.
The cast is exceptional, aided with a strong supporting ensemble including Robert Forster, Judy Greer and Beau Bridges. Payne makes the characters breathe and takes his time to make certain you understand they are broken but not shattered, offering some hope for the family without a pat ending.
The transfer is nice and crisp, accompanied with good sound. The Blu-ray comes with a nice if unexceptional assortment of extras including “Everybody Loves George” (7:26) as cast and crew laud the leading man. “Working with Alexander” (13:33) is a nice look at the director and he talks about the rigors of adapting the book and teaches how to make an omelet. “A Conversation with George Clooney and Alexander Payne” (11:58) has the director and star chat about their careers and what brought them to this film. A genial conversation worth a look.
“Hawaiian Style” (16:45) is a standard Making Of piece but nice to watch. There are two deleted scenes with text explaining why they didn’t make the final cut. “The Real Descendants” (12:06) features John Morgan, president of the Kualoa Ranch, discussing real people facing the same land issue Matt King does in the film. “Casting” (8:11) has Payne discussing what he looks for in actors as he scours the theatrical community to bring the characters to life. “Working with Water” (10:58) is another example of why working away from land causing filmmakers nightmares. “Waiting for the Light” (2:52) has some nice behind-the-scenes material and there are three music videos that work as postcards for the state.
Finally, there’s “The World Parade – Hawaii” (9:55) a silent one-reeler from Hollywood’s earliest days that gives you a fresh look at the islands before statehood.