Sunday, November 27, 2011
The Descendants is a charming little movie that touches on some pretty lofty themes and shrugs them off with breezy savoir faire. It's tactful, but a movie about a man who learns his wife had an affair before she slipped into a coma arguably shouldn't be so tactful. The particulars of performance, characterization and plot all converge quite nicely, but the story builds to several climactic moments of confrontation and reconciliation that aren't fully satisfying. There is something inspired about the Hawaiian locale which often engulfs the characters and stresses their relative smallness in the universe. Tragedy often makes one feel small, and The Descendants taps into this aesthetically. Unfortunately, the movie never fully breaks the surface. It doesn't break free from its elegant understatement to deliver the messy emotional payoff it seeks to build to.
The writer/director Alexander Payne has pulled off a neat trick. His leisurely tempo and light touch have given us a take on adultery and death that feels almost cozy. The heart of the story is a genuinely touching tale of a man (played by George Clooney) struggling to gain the acceptance of his two confused daughters. Clooney's performance is characteristically sober and likable, but the real standout from an acting perspective is Shailene Woodley, who plays his eldest daughter as a girl whose seemingly self-destructive behavior proves to be a front for a very grounded intellect. Ultimately, The Descendants is solid entertainment; the kind of movie that would be fun to discover while flipping the channels on a Sunday afternoon. Whether it is truly worthy of the kudos it's receiving would seem to be a function of the current state of movies rather than any legitimate claims it has to greatness.