Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Short Take: The Descendants

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Director Alexander Payne does a lovely job handling domestic-tragedy melodrama in The Descendants. The picture is beautifully paced and quite affecting. It's even wrenching at times. The occasional comedy scene keeps the material from getting too maudlin, and Payne makes fine use of the Hawaii locations. He doesn’t get lost in either the scenery or the poetic-ironic effects he uses it for. The story centers on an affluent Honolulu lawyer (George Clooney) and his efforts to come to terms with the impending death of his wife. He also has to take over the role of primary parent to his two headstrong daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller), as well as manage the dissolution of a large family land trust. On top of everything else, he discovers his wife was having an affair. The dramatic sections are well realized, but Payne does his best work with the comedic material: the efforts of the 17-year-old daughter to play mother to the 10-year-old; the Clooney character’s annoyance with the older girl’s pothead boyfriend; and the high comic moment when the Clooney character and the older daughter confront the wife’s lover. Clooney renders his character’s churned-up emotions with precision, and his comic timing is as strong as ever. Shailene Woodley, who plays the 17-year-old, isn’t a vivid presence in her dramatic scenes. But she nails the comic ones, with her delivery of her character’s profane dialogue a particular highlight. Payne gets fine work out of the rest of the cast, and the tempo of the individual scenes is just about perfect. The film’s only real flaw is how Shailene Woodley is occasionally presented. Payne gets too enamored with her eye-candy appeal at times, and it works against the tone of the scenes. The Descendants is award bait, but the picture represents that kind of filmmaking at its best. The elegantly crafted script, credited to Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash, is based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings.

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