The Descendants

 ​Since his 1999 film Election, every film writer/director Alexander Payne has delivered has been nominated for an Academy Award. His biggest pot of gold happened with Sideways, for which Payne won the adapted screenplay Oscar. The Descendants will be no less successful than Sideways, especially since George Clooney gives one of his best performances. It will land picture, director, actor and screenplay nominations, but the real question is if it will win. It's very likely; it will be associated with films like Little Miss Sunshine because of it's dramatic comedy blend which, as we know, is the best way to represent life as most people understand it. That’s the key with Payne’s work; he presents his audience with real characters they can understand and identify with saying very creative words.

Matt King’s wife Elisabeth is in a coma due to a boating accident. “I’m the understudy, the back-up parent”, Matt (Clooney) explains as he tries to come in and deal with this situation. His two daughters, 10 year old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17 year old Alex (Woodley) are anything but well mannered and understanding. Nevertheless, when Matt discovers his wife, who now it seems won’t be waking up, was cheating on him, everything he thought he had a grasp on falls apart. Everyone is full of anger at the situation Elisabeth has put them in, but Matt encourages them to be angry another day and find better words to say right now.

Clooney gives a performance here that is so detached from the usual strong willed characters he plays. He is emotional, incomplete, and has control over nothing. In many ways Matt King is very similar to Jack Nicholson’s character in About Schmidt or Paul Giamatti in Sideways; all are men who have control of everything up until the moment Payne introduces them to us. Payne may be the most prolific adapted screenwriter out there, but he gravitates towards male characters who must adapt to the unique situations they are placed in. The Descendants, like all Payne films, provides the audience with much comic relief in a devastating situation.

The backdrop of Hawaii, with it's deep culture and local music, makes the film more beautiful and profound (especially for someone who has visited all the locations). Payne’s films are not rich in cinematography, and the art direction isn’t something that will draw your eye. Payne is a storyteller who directs great actors inside great characters. Newcomer Woodley is fantastic beside Clooney; the makings of a young Natalie Portman, she holds her own and leaves quite an impression on the viewer. If there is a flaw in The Descendants, it’s the fact that it has been over hyped for four months and is an understated film. It’s the type of film with themes appealing to a broad audience; something you would enjoy sharing with others. Clooney’s emotional moment near the end of the film might even have him at the podium at the end of awards season.

   Final Thought – The most formidable Oscar contender of 2011.

Grade B+

By: Dustin Chase

Editor: Donna Copeland

Dr. Donna Copeland’s


Alexander Payne is one of the most talented writers/directors in the movie business today.  He is uncanny in his choice of subjects, his recruitment of fine actors and casting, and filming locations.  After seeing one of his movies, like this one and Sideways, for instance, the viewer comes away feeling like she has been on a long journey emotionally and geographically.  

 Very rarely (maybe, never) have we learned so much about someone who is in a coma as we do about Elizabeth King.  Just as remarkable, is that not all that we learn is flattering.  So many characters speak about her and to her in such a way that we get a detailed account of how she was seen and experienced by a large group of people.  That knowledge helps us understand the varying reactions to her.  The film does an excellent job in portraying a family going through the grieving process with all its emotional overloads.

 I also liked the parallel story about the land owned by the family and the decision-making and soul-searching that the Clooney character went through in living up to the trust placed in him by his ancestors.   These two stories are bound together by respect for values that preserve the family and the environment in which they live.

 George Clooney brings a poignancy and verisimilitude to his role as Matt King not seen before in any of the characters he has played in the past.  Here, he is alternately befuddled, mystified, vengeful, comic, calculating, grieving, spontaneous, and loving; he easily covers the whole range.  His co-star, Shailene Woodley, who plays his daughter, is likewise convincing.  These two stand out, but the whole cast is top-notch.

 Bottom line:  A finely crafted movie about love and life—and yes, even death.

Grade:  A