The Descendants Review
Alexander Payne does a great job of taking a difficult subject and changing it into a watchable experience for a film audience. Therein lies the strength and weakness of his latest film, The Descendants. The Descendants follows Matt King (George Clooney), a lawyer and self-proclaimed "back-up parent", as he goes around with his two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) telling friends and family that his wife is dying. While the plot sounds like something that would be hard to sit though, it is anything but. It is an enjoyable, well-acted tear jerker with only one fault: it's a little too predictable.
There is not one moment in the entire film that comes across as shocking. Everything is by the books, and while this does give us many emotional moments, it also gives the audience a want for something more. The screenwriters (including Payne doing double duty and Community's Jim Rash) do their best to make this film something special, but too much predictability and a superfluous subplot involving George Clooney's character trying to sell the rights to land he owns prevent them from doing so. Despite this, the screenwriters inject a perfect mix of humor and drama that really flies off the page with the help of Payne's directorial eye for realism.
This sense of realism that the film goes for at points is a major reason why George Clooney feels like the wrong choice for this film. Clooney too often comes off as just playing George Clooney. It happens here again as you never are really able to see Matt King. A perfect example of this is a scene in a bar where Payne decides to use a POV shot from the perspective of Clooney's charcter. The characters at this point seem like just a set of real people. That is until the shot ends and we are shown Clooney reacting to these characters. Clooney does the best he can with the material but it is not enough to get past his miscasting.
Luckily, the supporting cast is much stronger. Shailene Woodley is a revelation as the daughter of Clooney's character. It is amazing how quickly and smoothly she is able to transform her character from the bratty daughter to an almost mother-ly like character. She nails absolutely every scene in the first half as she suffers through coming to an acceptance with her mother's actions, and when her role changes in the second half she is able to create a fun repertoire with Clooney. The other three performances of note are those from Amara Miller (as the youngest daughter), Matthew Lillard (as an acquaintance of the family) and Robert Forster (as the father-in-law of Clooney's character). Miller is able to have chemistry with everyone she is onscreen with (which is surprising considering her young age). Lillard is able to create a sympathetic antagonist and Forster gives a powerful but short performance.
While the plot of this film is nothing special, The Descendants at least lives up to its name by featuring a cast where the young actors steal the show from their older counterparts.
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