Movie Review - The Descendants

The film that may win George Clooney his second Academy Award is far from the political realm as the film that won him his first. For writer-director Alexander Payne, it's not that far from the comedies he's delivered over the past decade or so, but, at the same time, it's dramatically less funny. I suppose though it's more difficult to mine many jokes in a movie about a woman in a coma.

Clooney plays Matt King, a lawyer living in Hawaii whose wife was in a boating accident, which left her comatose. Pedro Almodovar found the funny in a female coma patient in his film Talk to Her (2002), but only because he took it to the surreal and melodramatic. Payne, for the most part, plays things straight, which offers some interesting moments, but, ultimately, he leaves his audience more heartbroken than he ever has before.

This is perhaps why Clooney is a perfect fit here. Whether it's the screwball comedy of Leatherheads or even the Coen brothers craziness of Burn After Reading, Clooney has proven he can be funny. This dramedy though leans more on the "dram-," so someone like Clooney is probably the kind of man you need to anchor it.

For Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt and Paul Giamatti in Sideways, Payne pushed them more toward the "-medy." Not to say Nicholson and Giamatti didn't get their serious moments, it's just that their comedy and drama were more evenly balanced than Clooney's.

All I remember is laughing a whole lot more in Payne's previous films. I remember the characters being quirkier. I also remember Payne doing more interesting things with his camera, especially in Sideways. The most interesting thing Payne does here is a brief, under water shot, but even the framing and editing of the other scenes feel rather basic.

A Gotham Award nomination has already gone to Shailene Woodley who plays Alexandra, Matt King's eldest daughter. Woodley's performance here is pretty outstanding, considering her character reveals information that makes you not like the woman in the coma. She and Payne handle this situation rather brilliantly.

What isn't handled brilliantly is a sub plot involving land in Hawaii and a trust that's supposed to sell it. I feel like the sub plot adds a bit of culture to the backdrop but isn't integral to the real thrust of the story. For example, the sub plot in Sideways of whether or not Giamatti's character's book was getting published felt integral to that story. The Hawaii land thing felt like padding.

Clooney makes a speech at the end about a disconnect between his family and the land, but, aside from one brief scene that only acknowledges it and doesn't address it, Payne doesn't really develop this disconnect. Honestly, Payne could have ditched this sub plot all together and I don't think it would have hurt the movie at all.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated R for language including some sexual references.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 55 mins.


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