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The Descendants

Reviews
by Leonard Maltin
November 16, 2011 11:34 AM
8 Comments
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Watching a film as mature, moving, original and unpredictable as ‘The Descendants’ renews my faith in American movies, and reaffirms Alexander Payne’s status as one of our most gifted storytellers. He has also bestowed the gift of an exceptional role on George Clooney, who gives the best performance of his career.

Clooney can be a charmer, but here he embodies a character devoid of that trait. He’s a successful lawyer in Hawaii who, as he freely admits, has become so consumed by work that he has neglected his wife and two daughters. Fate intervenes when his wife is injured in a water-skiing accident that puts her in a coma. Overnight, he is forced to become a full-time father to his alienated teenage daughter (Shailene Woodley) and her younger sister, who needs to be sheltered from the dire news about her mom. In the midst of this, Clooney also has to make a momentous decision about a huge parcel of virgin land on the island of Kauai that is owned by his large, diverse family.

Fox Searchlight Director Alexander Payne on set of 'The Descendants'.

The challenge in describing the film is that it doesn’t neatly fit into any pigeonhole. It’s a serious movie that happens to have a sense of humor, because Payne and his collaborators see the absurdity in everyday existence. They know that life can turn tragic in the blink of an eye and an encounter between two characters can play out as high drama or be undercut by humor. That’s one of the qualities that distinguishes all of Payne’s movies and makes this one so special. (The screenplay was first developed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from a little-known novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings.)

Hawaii is more than just a backdrop for the story; it is part and parcel of the characters’ lives, which becomes clearer as the story progresses. That’s not to say that there aren’t breathtaking beauty shots peppered throughout the film; they help us understand what this island paradise means to the people who live there full-time and call it home.

Although he’s inevitably described as “director Alexander Payne,” it is his writing, usually in collaboration with Jim Taylor, which helps define the filmmaker’s sensibilities. While he’s not above making fun of his characters (think of the hapless schoolteacher played by Matthew Broderick in ‘Election’, or the often-clueless Jack Nicholson in ‘About Schmidt’) he never trivializes them. There is an unexpectedly funny moment in ‘The Descendants’ in which Clooney, fired up with rage, impulsively runs to a friend’s house…but because he’s wearing flip-flops, the dramatic impetus for the scene is somewhat defused by audience laughter at the sheer incongruity of the moment. That’s Payne in a nutshell.

Clooney’s character isn’t a bad person; he’s imperfect, like most of us, and in the face of some extraordinary challenges, he tries to summon his better self. That’s what I love about ‘The Descendants’: it makes us reflect about how we conduct our lives, and how we might strive to be better.

The Descendants’ is the best movie I’ve seen this year. I hope hordes of people go to see it…and that it inspires other filmmakers.

Watching a film as mature, moving, original and unpredictable as ‘The Descendants’ renews my faith in American movies, and reaffirms Alexander Payne’s status as one of our most gifted storytellers. He has also bestowed the gift of an exceptional role on George Clooney, who gives the best performance of his career. 

 
Clooney can be a charmer, but here he embodies a character devoid of that trait. He’s a successful lawyer in Hawaii who, as he freely admits, has become so consumed by work that he has neglected his wife and two daughters. Fate intervenes when his wife is injured in a water-skiing accident that puts her in a coma. Overnight, he is forced to become a full-time father to his alienated teenage daughter (Shailene Woodley) and her younger sister, who needs to be sheltered from the dire news about her mom. In the midst of this, Clooney also has to make a momentous decision about a huge parcel of virgin land on the island of Kauai that is owned by his large, diverse family. 
 
The challenge in describing the film is that it doesn’t neatly fit into any pigeonhole. It’s a serious movie that happens to have a sense of humor, because Payne and his collaborators see the absurdity in everyday existence. They know that life can turn tragic in the blink of an eye and an encounter between two characters can play out as high drama or be undercut by humor. That’s one of the qualities that distinguishes all of Payne’s movies and makes this one so special. (The screenplay was first developed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from a little-known novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings.)
 
Hawaii is more than just a backdrop for the story; it is part and parcel of the characters’ lives, which becomes clearer as the story progresses. That’s not to say that there aren’t breathtaking beauty shots peppered throughout the film; they help us understand what this island paradise means to the people who live there full-time and call it home.
 
Although he’s inevitably described as “director Alexander Payne,” it is his writing, usually in collaboration with Jim Taylor, which helps define the filmmaker’s sensibilities. While he’s not above making fun of his characters (think of the hapless schoolteacher played by Matthew Broderick in ‘Election’, or the often-clueless Jack Nicholson in ‘About Schmidt’) he never trivializes them. There is an unexpectedly funny moment in ‘The Descendants’ in which Clooney, fired up with rage, impulsively runs to a friend’s house…but because he’s wearing flip-flops, the dramatic impetus for the scene is somewhat defused by audience laughter at the sheer incongruity of the moment. That’s Payne in a nutshell. 
 
Clooney’s character isn’t a bad person; he’s imperfect, like most of us, and in the face of some extraordinary challenges, he tries to summon his better self. That’s what I love about ‘The Descendants’: it makes us reflect about how we conduct our lives, and how we might strive to be better.
 
‘The Descendants’ is the best movie I’ve seen this year. I hope hordes of people go to see it…and that it inspires other filmmakers.
Watching a film as mature, moving, original and unpredictable as ‘The Descendants’ renews my faith in American movies, and reaffirms Alexander Payne’s status as one of our most gifted storytellers. He has also bestowed the gift of an exceptional role on George Clooney, who gives the best performance of his career. 
 
Clooney can be a charmer, but here he embodies a character devoid of that trait. He’s a successful lawyer in Hawaii who, as he freely admits, has become so consumed by work that he has neglected his wife and two daughters. Fate intervenes when his wife is injured in a water-skiing accident that puts her in a coma. Overnight, he is forced to become a full-time father to his alienated teenage daughter (Shailene Woodley) and her younger sister, who needs to be sheltered from the dire news about her mom. In the midst of this, Clooney also has to make a momentous decision about a huge parcel of virgin land on the island of Kauai that is owned by his large, diverse family. 
 
The challenge in describing the film is that it doesn’t neatly fit into any pigeonhole. It’s a serious movie that happens to have a sense of humor, because Payne and his collaborators see the absurdity in everyday existence. They know that life can turn tragic in the blink of an eye and an encounter between two characters can play out as high drama or be undercut by humor. That’s one of the qualities that distinguishes all of Payne’s movies and makes this one so special. (The screenplay was first developed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from a little-known novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings.)
 
Hawaii is more than just a backdrop for the story; it is part and parcel of the characters’ lives, which becomes clearer as the story progresses. That’s not to say that there aren’t breathtaking beauty shots peppered throughout the film; they help us understand what this island paradise means to the people who live there full-time and call it home.
 
Although he’s inevitably described as “director Alexander Payne,” it is his writing, usually in collaboration with Jim Taylor, which helps define the filmmaker’s sensibilities. While he’s not above making fun of his characters (think of the hapless schoolteacher played by Matthew Broderick in ‘Election’, or the often-clueless Jack Nicholson in ‘About Schmidt’) he never trivializes them. There is an unexpectedly funny moment in ‘The Descendants’ in which Clooney, fired up with rage, impulsively runs to a friend’s house…but because he’s wearing flip-flops, the dramatic impetus for the scene is somewhat defused by audience laughter at the sheer incongruity of the moment. That’s Payne in a nutshell. 
 
Clooney’s character isn’t a bad person; he’s imperfect, like most of us, and in the face of some extraordinary challenges, he tries to summon his better self. That’s what I love about ‘The Descendants’: it makes us reflect about how we conduct our lives, and how we might strive to be better.
 
‘The Descendants’ is the best movie I’ve seen this year. I hope hordes of people go to see it…and that it inspires other filmmakers.
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8 Comments

  • elle | December 15, 2011 11:16 PMReply

    This is a great story... but Clooney was miscast. Not believable at all as a kama'aina in Hawaii. WOuld have been so much better with the right person in that role (and I am a Clooney fan! I usually love his work, the American excepted...) I also think the teenage boy was miscast. It's a character who grows on you, but this kid was just f'ing annoying.

  • Jim G | December 12, 2011 8:24 PMReply

    This film was tough to break down. I agree with some comments of the critics but overall ended up agreeing with Leonard wholeheartedly. I loved the human elements of the imperfect characters - rich kids who swear like sailors, hurt, are vulnerable. A protagonist who is also very human but reaches earnestly for the better angels of our nature despite all argument to the contrary. A very good (not great) but very good movie.

  • Film_Shark | December 12, 2011 7:41 AMReply

    Clooney deserves the Oscar for Best Actor in February. And I agree Mr. Maltin, Alexander Payne is an excellent story teller because he understands his protagonist must go through a painful and tragic journey to become a better person in life.

  • ted baldwin | December 3, 2011 2:31 AMReply

    Hated it. Immature and phony drama with awkward "incidents" such as the father in law punching Sid, and Clooney cruelly telling the wife's friend that his wife was going to die. This is an uncivil and emasculating deconstruction of paradise. The people are not compelling and Clooney's character is ineffectual to the max. He is wallowing in a cloud of disrespect and does not think enough of his role as patriarch to straighten out his kids. The film also does its best to diminish his money and make him look guilty for having means. Just not believable. I know peole with money like that, and they are not drifting along. I lasted until Sid pretended to have a mentally challenged brother.

  • mike | January 21, 2012 8:51 PM

    Thank you!!! My sister and I, both discerning moviegoers, hated this film, and are utterly baffled by the critics' positive reviews. Aside from appreciating itself too much, this film breaks a cardinal rule- it's boring!! I enjoy a "slow" movie if I care about what happens in it, or to it's characters. Neither was true here. And finally, I don't know what Leonard Maltin saw, but I saw very dull cinematography for a film shot in Hawaii. The Brady Bunch episodes had better footage.

  • mikkimouth | November 20, 2011 6:13 PMReply

    i love when directors get stars to act. great story.

  • Jeff Heise | November 17, 2011 2:56 PMReply

    Saw the film last night-loved every second of it. This film cannot be pigeonholed, thank goodness-it has moments of humor, tragedy, drama, slapstick and humanity-everything a great film needs to last both in memory and in context. Clooney has never been better (he wears no suits-mostly casual and beach wear; don't think I saw one suit in the film) and the two girls (the younger one had never acted before) give wonderful performances. I think this might be the film to beat at the Oscars that is not a special effects extravaganza.

  • Norm | November 16, 2011 4:58 PMReply

    I wonder if the film would have worked had it been set in Kansas. The story sounds promising, and the conflict or diverseness of the moments is incongruent, yet heartfelt. If Clooney can act in this film, it would give more meaning to his somewhat, checkered film career. I just hope he doesn't wear a black suit.

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