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Written by: Jim Rash, Nat Faxon and Alexander Payne, adapted from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings

Directed by: Alexander Payne

Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Robert Forster, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer, Nick Krause, Beau Bridges

Matt King (George Clooney) seems like a pretty good man, even if he’s been a little absent from his family. Why, then, is he being punished so relentlesly in Alexander Payne’s The DescendantsMatt is a lawyer in Hawaii whose wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) struck her head in a water-skiing accident and is in a coma. He is also the sole executer of a family trust of 25,000 acres of untouched land, a trust which is set to dissolve and Matt is to make a decision whether or not to sell the land. To sell would put an enormous sum in the pockets of Matt and his cousins, but will result in the land being used for resorts and hotels. To keep it will preserve the land but prevent Matt’s broke cousins from making a cent. On top of all this Matt is handling his two daughters, ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) who is beginning to act out, and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) who has had drug issues in the past but is beginning to calm down. Alexandra tells her father that the explosive fight she had with her mother prior to the accident was caused by the discovery that Elizabeth was cheating on Matt. The film’s action is mainly concerned with Matt’s search for his wife’s lover. Spoilers? Nah, this is all readily available early in the film, it’s a spring board for a well-made tale of familial pain, love and trust.

There is a great sense in The Descendants from its opening moments until its climax of chaos, as life lurches out of control such that Matt can only sit by helpless, sad. Clooney, as usual, is excellent here, but he’s doing something a little different. This is not a confident, cockey, or smug George Clooney , and neither is it a charming, or funny Clooney. Matt King is a strong man, and no doubt a do-er but he’s reached a point in his life where good or bad, his decisions have resulted in daughters he can’t access, a marriage that was dissolving under his nose and a business decision with no right answer. He’s sad, he’s quiet, his small emotional outburts are padded with moments of spare and tragic efforts to keep it together. Clooney’s interactions with Woodley are great, really. The relationship is of a father and daughter who have historically been at odds, have learned to not quite trust each other but now are learning to see each other as adults, as equals. Alexandra insists that her oafish friend Sid (Nick Krause) accompany them on their journey to inform friends and family of their mother’s condition, and to find her lover. Sid is an excellent character, he provides an incredible sort of squirmy, hilarious comic relief at the film’s most tense moments, and later reveals himself to be intelligent and comforting. As young Scottie, Miller is witty and compelling and veteran Robert Forster turns the miniscule role of Elizabeth’s father into an incredibly complex and present character.

The Descendants isn’t the film I was expecting from writers (and Reno 911! alumni) Jim Rash and Nat Faxon; it is far more emotional and affecting. Payne, whose Sideways (2004) I’ve always had a fondness for, directs this film with dextrous balance and skillfully knows when to play for laughs and when to hold them back. So agile is this film that I found myself, during moments of enormous laughter, to be stopped short by a knot in my throat. It’s sad and perceptive, and surprisingly original considering its core material. Besides, what can be detracted from a film that easily convinced me that any lady would ever step out on George Clooney with Matthew Lillard?

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