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186 of 215 people found the following review helpful
It seems hard to believe that it's been seven years since Alexander Payne's "Sideways" became the critical darling of 2004. Nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and winning Payne an Adapted Screenplay Oscar--that picture (along with Election and About Schmidt) signaled a talented filmmaker with an unorthodox worldview. Blending elements of comedy and drama, Payne has crafted complex characters simultaneously frustrating and sympathetic--but altogether real. In adapting Kaui Hart Hemmings' intimate novel "The Descendants" to the big screen, Payne demonstrates (once again) a deft balance of emotions to create a picture both funny and heartbreaking. I so admired how Payne made vineyards and fine wines a major component, an extra character really, in the sublime "Sideways." In much the same way, Hawaii is a principle character (and I would contend one of the most pivotal) to "The Descendents." It would be easy to imagine someone jettisoning much of this rich texture, but Payne has crafted a loving tribute to the state's heritage in addition to one of the year's most surprising family dramas.

George Clooney plays one of the titular descendants, someone whose family has great historical significance to the Hawaiian Islands. In fact, he and his many cousins own a great tract of undeveloped land that plays a major role in the film's fascinating side story. Front and center, however, is a more personal tale of family dysfunction and pulling together in crisis. When Clooney's somewhat estranged wife is incapacitated in an accident, Clooney must take charge of his troublesome teenage daughter (an astute Shailene Woodley) and his rebellious younger girl (an appealingly unexpected Amara Miller). With mom in a coma, Clooney is left to do his best to reconnect with the girls that he hasn't made enough time for. While this seems to be leading to some routine comic hijinks, the film takes a decidedly more serious turn as Clooney learns about his wife's true feelings. The rest of the movie walks the tightrope about how he and his daughters can channel these revelations and emerge stronger for it. And the film runs the gamut of emotions with anger, betrayal, love, and regret sharing equal time as the family embarks on a tumultuous journey together.

While I know this makes the film sound like a bit of a downer, there is much humor to be enjoyed as well. While I'm confident that many will reveal far more about the plot than I am willing to, I think that it is best to let the story unravel without expectation. This is very much an in-depth character study. As such, Clooney has one of his most rewarding roles. He goes through a lot, but he maintains a subtlety that always keeps the picture grounded (even in its more extreme elements). Woodley is a revelation and this is as far a departure from TV's "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" as she's likely to experience. I'm confident we'll be seeing more of her. Miller has a real ease and provides many well placed laughs and a few tears as well. Perhaps the film's biggest secret weapon is Nick Krause playing Woodley's friend. As a laconic and laid back surfer dude, Krause's scenes with Clooney have real impact. As an odd source of wisdom and support, he is a unique character in this piece.

"The Descendants," at the end of the day, is a quiet and thoughtful film. The film never plays up the huge emotional moments or strains for melodrama. It simply lets the characters exist as complex creations, with all their foibles and flaws in evidence. Its understated power, therefore, is all the more successful as it feels patently real. A treat for adult movie goers, 4 1/2 stars. KGHarris, 12/11.
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28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on December 15, 2012
It is pretty difficult to describe what kind of a film Alexander Payne's new film "The Descendants" is. Some will think it is a comedy drama about messy nature of life. Others may feel the film is rather sad, dealing with life's most devastating moment. Perhaps both views are right.

The story itself is simple. George Clooney plays Matt King, a successful Hawaiian lawyer and sole trustee of pristine land on Kauai Island. His wife Elizabeth has been in coma since the boating accident a few weeks ago. Having been too busy, he doesn't know how to talk to his two daughters, precocious 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and rebellious 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley). In his voiceover Matt pleads with his wife to wake up.

Ironically it is Matt who has to "wake up." He learns that his comatose wife had been "seeing" someone. With his wife's health deteriorating, Matt sets out to seek the truths about that guy, with his daughters and Alex's slacker friend Sid (Nick Krause) only to find unexpected consequences. And Matt has to make a grave decision about a tract of land in less than a week.

With the beautifully shot on-location photography in Hawaii, "The Descendants" sometimes looks like a visual travelogue, but the beautiful images sometime hide uncomfortable surprises and facts Matt didn't want to know. The film is part Matt's spiritual journey that is, skillfully told by the director, is amusing and touching at the same time without relying on conventional settings. It may not be all that uplifting, but overall optimistic.

The film is in a sense a character study of Matt (played superbly by George Clooney), but other characters are equally intriguing. While Alex tends to conceal what she really feels (like her father), her sister Scottie takes things as they seem and behaves accordingly. Looking at Matt and his daughters reminds us what we understand least is often someone very close to you.

To me, the strength of "The Descendants" lies in these characters whose emotions seem often unaccountable (even to those who possess them), but still genuine and realistic nonetheless. Alexander Payne explores how our life could be messy and painful - and also amazing - in his own unique style.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on August 21, 2012
Directed by the creator of the Oscar-winning SIDEWAYS, The Descendants starts when Matt King, a "back-up" father (his words) must slow down his career to take care of his two daughters (17 and 11) while his wife is in the hospital in a comma caused by a boat accident. Soon we learn, his wife, spurned by Matt's long absences and indifference, was having an affair. Matt and his older daughter decide to search for this man they never met dragging along the younger girl and the oldest girl's boyfriend, and, of course, the viewer.

The Descendants has many things going for it. George Clooney, for one, beautiful views of two of the islands of Hawaii, a strong story that does not shy away from reality and avoids the sugarcoating so prevalent in Hollywood movies, and great acting from all the actors including the aforementioned Mr. Clooney.

Yet, I cannot say I loved it.

Why? Because it is a realistic take on fatherhood and marriage and, after watching the trailer, I expected something lighter.

This is not the movie's fault. The Descendants is a serious movie and that's perfectly all right. I like serious movies. But not when I am expecting something else.

So, now that you know, please go and enjoy. It's worth seeing. Just don't go for the laughs.
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37 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on April 8, 2012
I had missed this highly rated (by the critics) movie in theaters, so I finally got around to renting the Blu-ray over the weekend.

It's mostly a sad drama about a man slowly losing his wife after a boating accident, but there are a few comedic moments along the way that are realistic, rather than forced. The writing and the entire cast are great. I'm not the biggest George Clooney fan, but his work in Up in the Air and The Descendants has totally made me a believer in his acting talents when given the right material. The girl who plays his oldest daughter is very good as well. One of the better movies I've seen in 2012 and worth checking out.
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61 of 80 people found the following review helpful
The Descendants, a movie starring George Clooney, is the best film I've seen all year. It is adult-themed, realistic and poignant. The dialogue seems real, the acting is superb and the photography of Hawaii is spellbindingly beautiful. The story is about Matt King, descended from King Kamehameha many generations back. He and his family have inherited quite a bit of land for which Matt is the executor and they are in the process of selling it. The proceeds will go to Matt and his cousins. Despite having wealth, Matt has lived frugally, to the point where one might question his motives. His wife, Elizabeth, has just been severely injured in a boating accident and is comatose. It is unlikely that she ever will wake up and her living will is very explicit that she wants her life support pulled.

Matt has two daughters, Scottie and Alex. Alex is 17 and a handful. As the film opens, she is in a private school that may also be a rehab facility. Scottie, about 10, is acting out at school and at home since her mother's injury. Matt is clueless about how to raise his two daughters alone and has been very distant from his family spending most of his time working at his law practice. The crisis with Elizabeth is forcing him to be a primary parent and the film is excellent in showing Matt's development as a father.

Matt goes to the big island to pull Alex from school and bring her home. She is furious at her mother, having found out recently that she was having an affair. She tells her father and the two become co-conspirators in finding Joanie's lover and confronting him. Matt is flabbergasted about the affair. The marriage has not been going well but he had no suspicions that his wife loved another man.

George Clooney is excellent in his part as are the two girls. The movie poignantly shows how the family starts pulling together into a semblance of a loving unit. The dialogue is fresh and real, not for the faint of heart or for those who mind cursing. I have not read the book so I can't compare the two but on its own merits, this film is a real winner.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on March 18, 2012
There is 90 seconds of film where George Clooney is not on the screen. But don't worry, he narrates for us so we don't forget he is in the film. His wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) has a boating accident we don't get to see because Clooney wasn't there. She is in a coma and is going to die. Clooney has been so involved with his job (he has a big deal in the works) that he has alienated himself from his family. Now he is attempting to reconnect with his two daughters, the older of which has harsh feelings for her mother.

The story develops to a point where Elizabeth's coma becomes almost secondary. Clooney's deal involves all of his cousins and a realtor Clooney would rather not deal with for personal reasons. In order to help her cope, the older daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) has a boyfriend (Nick Krause) who hangs out with her during this interim.

The movie is a drama, but the dysfunctional family provides for light humor and some dark humor to keep the film from getting too heavy. Good acting. Well written and directed. Film is really great if you like the color blue: blue skies, blue water, blue Hawaiian shirts...and Clooney.

F-bomb, no sex or nudity. 4 1/2 stars.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 13, 2015
The Descendents
A better made, acted and written film with like intensity I have not seen this year. I hope not to see it’s like anytime soon. Stupid humans-this is an incredible film which deals with the tragic death of a loved one, not so fun. Throw in a drug troubled teen ager, adultery by a family man, cheating spouse and a background of titanic greed vs. our better instincts and there we are. If grand literature can successfully come to the silver screen to mangle our emotions, this is the very one to do it. I became disturbed, appalled, sickened and at last brought to pity and a kind of peace through endurance.
The story revolves around an extended family, the fictitious Kings. They are loosely-I hope very loosely-modeled on the real life Robinson family. The Kings, like the Robinsons, own a massive chunk of the Island of Kauai, the Hawaiian Garden Isle. An old trust which has preserved the land in a pristine state will expire in seven years. The family must find something to do with the land. Some want to sell out for $300 million, the others to another bidder for a cool half billion. Nice choice to have.
The real story is that of the familial inner action. We never hear Mrs. King speak. As the movie opens, she is rendered comatose in a boating accident. She surely will die, and soon. Matt King (George Clooney in an Oscar nominated role-which he rightly deserves to win. We knew he could act but this role is clear off the charts) must deal with two daughters, one a seventeen year old drug damaged wild child (Shailene Woodley, beautiful, profane and shattered by life) and the other a bewildered middle schooler.
Woodley in particular is quite good. She is only 20 but has some 33 TV or film roles to her credit. Also putting in admirable work are Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer as the philandering Brian Speer and his “I never saw it coming” wife.
Great accolades must be reserved for Alexander Payne. He directed this wonderful, hard to take movie, as he did About Schmidt and Sideways. He also wrote the script as he also did for the above mentioned along with I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. He also produced the film. He must take the lion’s share of credit. He will take home the Oscar for Best Picture (as producer) and Best Director, should the Motion Picture Academy so vote. I would be happy if he wins both, and happy with Clooney for best actor. This is a very rare five saw blade movie but it is rated R because it deals with the most intense of human emotions in a brilliantly realistic way. I left drained.
The film runs a typical one hour and 55 minutes. I love Hawaii and the film I loved seeing it filmed so vividly and well. Tiny things that I noticed, like the correct style of Aloha shirt to wear to a business meeting, like the proper high school for prominent Hawaiian families (fabled Punahou, the high school of one Berry Obama) make the movie even better. Both of these items were simply part of the background, a background developed by very careful movie making.
As producer, Payne will be happy about the $228 and counting that has crossed the ticket counter so far. This is a classic, maybe even perfect, film.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon March 23, 2012
Alexander Payne knows how to make a character-driven film. In his previous movies "Election" and "Sideways," the good guys are inherently flawed and the villains have many virtues, but people constantly get themselves into trouble by making those little decisions that have major, unforeseen consequences.

"Everything just happens." The line heard in Payne's latest film, "The Descendants," neatly sums up the writer-director's philosophy. Much happens to Matt King (George Clooney) in this movie, set entirely in Hawaii, where King's life is teetering on the edge of picturesque seaside cliffs. His thrill-seeking wife lies in a coma following a powerboat accident, and her chances of recovery are slim. The couple's 10-year-old daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), rages against the world, and King is so feckless a dad that he turns to his 17-year-old, Alex (Shailene Woodley), for help, even though he has already sent her to boarding school to wean her off alcohol, drugs and men. The other potential source of help, King's father-in-law (Robert Forster), blames him for the accident.

King's family brings another huge piece of baggage: a piece of Hawaii's soul. The King family are Haole descendants of King Kamehameha's family (Haole is Hawaiian for honkey) and King's cousins have each squandered their vast inheritances. King has preserved his share by living a comparably frugal life and, understandably, he is the sole trustee of the family's once-vast trust. The trust owns one major asset, an unspoiled 25,000-acre plot of paradise on Kauai that most of King's cousins want to sell to a developer. Such a sale would infuriate most of the state, but Cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges) makes it clear that a few hundred million soothes a wounded conscience quite nicely.

To top it off (as we saw in the movie's trailer), King learns that his wife has been cheating on him. And so it is we see King's point when he observes, "Paradise? Paradise can go . . ." (Well, you know.)

Ultimately, "The Descendants" is about King's quest for redemption: as a father, a husband, and a Hawaiian. In a lesser movie, he would move smoothly through the steps of healing and emerge triumphant with a big speech announcing his hard-won wisdom. "The Descendants" does not take any easy shortcuts. While King wants to connect with his daughters, he doesn't have a clue how to do it. He, naturally, is also consumed with tracking down his wife's lover (Matthew Lillard) and finds an unlikely ally in Alex; this is hardly the traditional bonding experience for a father and daughter. Clooney, a nominee for a best actor Oscar, is a perfect choice to play King. Looking a bit more haggard than his normal Danny Ocean self, Clooney is as vulnerable as we've ever seen him. We believe it when he turns to his daughter's stoner boyfriend (Nick Krause) for advice.

As usual in a Payne movie, all the performances are first-rate, and Shailene Woodley is particularly strong as the frustrated older daughter. Ultimately a comedy, "The Descendants" is a rich character study steeped in the romance of Hawaii. Gorgeously shot (I watched the high-definition Blu-ray) and scored with a charming Hawaiian guitar soundtrack, the movie stands proudly next to Payne's best work, and that's high praise.

A healthy dose of extras include deleted scenes and several small documentaries, including an exploration of the real-life "Descendants," an examination of the Hawaiian mystique, and a discussion with Clooney and Payne.

Review originally published on
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30 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on January 22, 2012
While "The Descendants" is well acted and directed, and entertaining on, at least, a basic level, it seems to slip from memory almost as one leaves the theater.

One podcast critic expressed a view that this film is "a mile wide and an inch deep". That, to me, says it exactly. If I had seen "The Descendants" on TV as a "movie-of-the-week" I would have recommended it on that simple level, but as a feature film with pretenses of garnering an Oscar, it definitely falls far short of the mark. (But, if it wins, it certainly won't be the first one to unjustly win the statuette -- anyone remember "Terms of Endearment" which I continue to call "Tears of Endurement"?)

Clooney IS great as he always is but because of the film's shallowness his big crying scene had me thinking the whole time, "this scene was contrived solely to be an Oscar scene", as was much of the movie. In a year that gave us "The Tree of Life" and "Hugo", this film winning the gold (and it might) would be an uunmitigated farce.

But, farce or not, being overrated is hardly reason enough to denigrate this film. It's a good one that most viewers will find entertaining. And well made. So, I recommend it but, pu-hleeze, don't tell me this is a great film, or even a work of cinematic art! It isn't.

Bob Blenheim
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20 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on April 15, 2012
Some films have the intention of creating a lush, emotionally-moving story that works on a number of different levels, but end up failing due to a lack of overall execution. "The Descendants" is exactly that kind of movie.

For a basic plot summary, "The Descendants" begins with Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie) in a coma after a severe boating accident. When husband Matt (George Clooney) learns that she will not be waking up from her coma, he must take his two daughters Alex (Shailene Woodley) & Scottie (Amara Miller) on a trip to inform the relatives. Along the way, Matt discovers that Elizabeth was cheating on him, and alternatively confronts the man who she had the affair with.

The biggest problem with this movie is that it utterly fails to tug at the emotions whatsoever. We are supposed to become deeply involved with the King family, but instead the character development just falls flat. It takes a great director to weave everything together, but in this case Alexander Payne just fails to get it done. All the elements are present...but it just doesn't jell together as it should.

It is also strange that, despite the very Hawaiian soundtrack & locale, Hawaii doesn't add anything to this movie. If a movie is made that heavily features such a locale, it needs to be an integral part of the storyline. Instead, the Hawaiian flavor doesn't add a thing to this film...only muddying the waters further.

Overall, "The Descendants" was a big letdown for me considering its Oscar buzz earlier in 2012. It is miles behind films like "War House", "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close", and "The Help". It doesn't even touch Clooney's earlier "Up in the Air" effort, which was one of the better films I saw that year. Unfortunately, this one just falls flat.
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