George Clooney's star shines in this delicate melodrama from two-time Oscar winner Alexander Payne....
Fox / 115 Minutes / 2011 / Rated R / Street Date: March 13, 2012
Sweet, soft, and devastating, Alexander Payne's The Descendants is a wiggly kaleidoscope of a melodrama. George Clooney's starpower cements the whole thing, of course, but there's a scintillating complexity to the picture that thrillingly threatens to undermine the big-screen familiarity Clooney's presence brings the movie. Just when you think The Descendants is going to settle down and become the weepy drama you think it will be, it folds in upon itself, melding both character nuance and surprising plot developments to create a wholly unique cinematic experience.
This is not to say that the Oscar-winning movie isn't without its shortcomings. Payne, taking a cue from his narrative and tonal mentor Billy Wilder, often trespasses into precious and dramatically unbelievable territory, almost to the point of pulling the viewer out of the movie entirely. It's never enough to fully torpedo the film, but The Descendants gets really damned close to being a classic picture, and when it falters, there's a certain disappointment that gets drummed up.
To give away too many of the movie's twists and turns would undermine its potential appeal, so let's just say The Descendants is about a dad and his kids. Matt King (Clooney) is a successful Hawaiian lawyer whose wife has been seriously injured in a boating accident. Rallying together his two daughters - Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller - he tries to wrap things up with his wife as her comatose condition goes from bad to worse, but things absolutely do not go as planned. At all.
The Descendants isn't a movie to go completely ga-ga for, but that's ironically what makes it such an appealing, off-beat picture. Its subtlety is so disciplined and consistent that even its most outlandish and histrionic moments (and yes, there are many of them) feel somehow organic and appropriate. The movie doesn't hold up exceptionally well upon multiple viewings - the freshness of its initial viewer experience is one of its most valuable assets - but even if The Descendants isn't the godsend some critics made it out to be during Oscar season, it's absolutely a functional and often illuminating melodrama.