Alexander Payne's last movie was 2004's Oscar-winning dramedy Sideways, which means audiences should pay attention to his newest release The Descendants, an alluring and engaging drama that maneuvers the fine line between life's sadness and humor.
Starring George Clooney, The Descendants is set in Hawaii in the aftermath of a boating accident that has left Clooney's on-screen wife brain dead. The successful businessman must come to terms with his wife's imminent death and the realization that he must now raise two kids who he barely knows. He also must make a real estate decision that has millions of dollars at stake.
At once about the loss of life and finding new life in its wake, The Descendants is sad and yet uplifting, serious yet humorous like life often is. While Sideways didn't deal with death, fans ofthe movie will notice the similarities in tone and style. The Descendants is serious one moment then funny the next, shifting and evolving scene to scene and even within individual scenes.
Payne directs the movie with pitch-perfect precision, relying on his actors and their nuanced performances to elevate the material. The screenplay, which was co-written by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash and based on a book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, is excellent, an easy contender for Best Adapted Screenplay. Very straightforward, even simple, on the surface, The Descendants is rich with complexities that keep things interesting and moving forward in a highly rewarding, entertaining and ultimately emotional way.
Payne masterfully embraces and highlights the underlying emotions, and humor, in each scene. At one point, Clooney's character is told an unsettling truth. Devastated and yet unable to confront his emotions, Clooney goes running to a neighbor's house. Literally. This moment, which can be seen in the trailers, is defining of the movie as a whole. It's funny, if only slightly and only for a few seconds, and yet it's bookmarked by serious revelations. Even when serious, Payne is able to find those strokes of humor. While the characters are relatable and intriguing, Payne acknowledges that the audience is still merely watching their story; as with any outside party, it's possible to find humor in others' grief.
Clooney has always been great at playing characters trapped by their emotions. Not unlike his role in Up in the Air, for which he was nominated for an Oscar, Clooney portrays Matt King as a man frustrated by how his life has turned out, and yet hopeful for what's yet to come. Clooney delivers yet another excellent performance.
More surprising is the theatrical debut of Shailene Woodley ("The Secret Life of the American Teenager"), who gives a great supporting performance that matches Clooney's step for step. Funny, sexy and emotionally charged, her portrayal of Clooney's rebellious daughter is worth noting; depending on the film's success, she has an outside chance at an Oscar nomination herself.
Nick Krause, as her idiotic boyfriend, also turns in a fine performance, as does Robert Forster.
The Descendants is the follow-up to Sideways audiences and critics alike could have only hoped for. Alexander Payne has directed another great movie, one that should be a serious contender come award season.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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