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Oscar-winning 'Descendants' is a genuinely moving drama

Thursday, March 1, 2012

On Sunday night, the three screenwriters behind the George Clooney-led family drama "The Descendants" - Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash - heard their names called from the stage at the 84th Annual Academy Awards after the night's oft-repeated anticipation-building clause, "And the Oscar goes to... ." The prize was deserved: Payne (who also directed the film), Faxon and Rash collaborated on a script, based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, that gave the foundation to a smart, sad, but ultimately redemptive movie about a small, frayed - and potentially doomed - family.

In the film, Clooney plays Matt King, an attorney whose wife is now laying unconscious in a hospital bed, comatose after a serious motorboat accident. His youngest daughter, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), is acting out at school and home; his eldest, 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), is away at a boarding school and may be even more troubled.

Matt and his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), had been distant for some time before her accident, but her injuries have made him reconsider their relationship; he wants reconciliation and a chance to recover their marriage. Unfortunately, it isn't to be. The woman's doctor tells him that his wife's condition is rapidly deteriorating, and her living will states that she doesn't want to be kept alive by artificial means.

Added to the emotional crisis he's going through trying to deal with his wife's impending death, Matt's also responsible for a family-wide trust of valuable coastal real estate on one of the Hawaiian Islands. The far-flung cousins who have entrusted him with the final decision of what to do with the land are split amongst themselves - who should they sell it to, or should they even sell it at all?

Matt is trying to hold himself together for everyone else - but the strain is clearly showing. The stress on his fragile spirit reaches a breaking point, however, when Alexandra reveals a terrible secret about her mother that she'd been carrying for a while now: Elizabeth had been having an affair. A tense visit with a couple of family friends reveals something even more hurtful about the adulterous relationship - Elizabeth was about to confront Matt and demand a divorce from him before the accident silenced her forever.

With this information clearly tearing at him, Matt elects to take on a two-fold quest. The first is to let friends and family - including Elizabeth's shell-shocked father (played by Robert Forster) - know that the woman that they loved is rapidly approaching the end of her life, while he actively pursues the mystery man who had won his wife's affection.

To say that this is an emotionally challenging film is to put it lightly. "The Descendants" was pitched in its advertising as a much more overtly comic film than it really is; there are a few moments of comic relief, thank goodness, especially when Matt finally corners his quarry, but "The Descendants" is, for the most part, a serious-minded exploration of the messiness of day-to-day life, and how that messiness can morph into something altogether different when tragedy occurs.

Clooney received an Oscar nomination for his work here, and he deserved it. Matt is no glamorous movie-star type - indeed, he's something of a sad sack, weary from work and worry, full of self-doubt, regret and sorrow. It's a skillful performance from a genuinely talented actor.

His efforts are aided by a strong cast, including Woodley and Miller as the daughters who need their father to protect and guide them, even as they struggle against him, as well as Nick Krause, who portrays the oldest daughter's surprisingly empathetic boyfriend Sid.

"The Descendants" is a moving, tender film, and definitely worth seeing. Three and a half stars (out of four).

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Jeremy Blomstedt
The Entertainment Center