4 out of 4 stars
"The Descendants" is only the fifth film in 15 years from director Alexander Payne. Usually when an active filmmaker has that much time between titles it's because they're either unfocused, faux-perfectionists or making mega-budget epics or animated features. In Payne's case it's due to his unusually high standards regarding source material and keeping production costs ultra-low so he can do his job without studio bean counters looking over his shoulder.
While still speckled with Payne's wry, often caustic humor, "The Descendants" is far more dramatic and soul-searching then all of his other films combined -- and easily his most mainstream. Toss in a searing lead performance by George Clooney and there's little doubt "The Descendants" will at least double Payne's rabid but modest fan base. DVD rentals of "Citizen Ruth," "Election," "About Schmidt" and "Sideways" should enjoy a pleasant upward spike between now and Oscar night 2012.
Like the leads in all of his films, Matt King (Clooney) finds himself at moral and ethical crossroads when he least expects it. Born and raised in Hawaii, Matt and about two dozen of his cousins are descendants of both Kamehameha I, the first king of Hawaii and one of the then-island-nation's premier industrialists.
Needless to say, the King family is swimming in it and is nearing a decision regarding the possible sale of a large parcel of undeveloped beachfront property that could make each cousin a multi-millionaire. Although each gets a vote in who will be the buyer, Matt ultimately has the final say and he takes the responsibility very seriously.
Through the minimal use of first-act voiceover, Matt readily admits he probably works too much (he's also an attorney) and not the greatest husband or father. He's not unfaithful or abusive in any way; just emotionally detached and, as we find out later on, somewhat oblivious. He also doesn't suffer fools gladly.
Matt's many years of unintended complacency finally catch up to him when his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is involved in a nasty boating accident and slips into a coma. With teen daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) away at boarding school on another island, Matt has to go from barely there to becoming both parents for 10-year old Scottie (Amara Miller). Showing the potential for obesity and future unruly behavior, Elizabeth's condition puts Scottie on the fast track for disaster; something she seems intent on escalating.
If you think you've been given too much plot detail, rest assured, you haven't. All of the above takes place in the first 15 minutes and Payne has a good half dozen more twists in store. "The Descendants" isn't a thriller but it plays out like one, and you will be hard pressed to figure out where it will end up or how Payne will get us there.
Having been passed over by Payne when he was gunning for the part that eventually went to Thomas Hayden Church in "Sideways," Clooney gets about as far away from the often suave confidence that has become his trademark. Due in large part to his wealth, power, good looks and polarizing political views, Clooney's considerable skills as an actor are regularly overlooked. The last time he played this far against type ("Syriana"), he won an Oscar. Most critics and pundits now list Clooney as the guy to beat in the leading male category, and he more than deserves it.
Coming out of practically nowhere, Woodley (the lead in the now-canceled TV series "The Secret Life of the American Teenager") literally and figuratively goes toe-to-toe with Clooney and steals (almost) every scene they share. Beautiful and girl-next-door wholesome looking, Woodley's Alex is anything but that here, and more often than not the audience will be hard pressed to like or even empathize with her. Woodley is now in probable Oscar-nomination territory.
As good as it is (and it's a hands-down masterpiece), "The Descendants" easily deserves its "R" rating. Although devoid of any sex or violence, the movie is almost top-heavy with profanity -- much of it courtesy of Scottie and Alex. Don't make the same mistake many parents made with "Election" and allow young teens to see it; it is for adults only. (Fox Searchlight)