The Descendants (2011)

(On Cable TV, May 2014) I watch a curiously low number of straight-up dramas, usually out of an unfair suspicion that they are not as interesting as my usual genre movies. But then there are films such as The Descendants, absorbing from the get-go and witty enough to keep my attention until the end. Adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel (a literary origin that can be felt in the complex back-stories for most characters) by veteran screenwriter/director Alexander Payne, The Descendants works partially because it never quite does the expected thing, and partly because it can count on an exceptional, world-weary performance by George Clooney. Expectations are quickly subverted, as the opening monologue discusses the disillusionment of day-to-day life in Hawaii and then moves on with a surprising lack of sentimentality in discussing the burden of a man dealing with the terminal coma of his wife. (It’s a measure of how unconventional The Descendants can be when the brain-dead wife gets verbally harangued on her deathbed by grieving family members no less than three times.) When the quasi-widower discovers the unfaithfulness of his nearly-ex-wife, it’s up to him and his daughters to deal with the situation. Blend in an extended subplot about land stewardship, and you’ve got the makings of an interesting script no matter the execution. But Payne’s touch suitably lets Clooney own the lead character, and display a wide range of emotions that more than reaffirm his abilities as an actor. Shailene Woodley has a career-launching role as a teenage girl who ends up far less rebellious than initially portrayed, while Robert Forster has a small but remarkable role as a punch-happy older man. (Judy Greer also makes a striking appearance as a cheated-upon wife who’s a great deal less forgiving than she initially appears.) Often unexpectedly funny, The Descendants offers a slice of life for characters thrown in a difficult situation, eventually reaching an accommodation with their new circumstances. By the time the film ends, we’re reasonably certain that they will be all right… which is for the best given how much we’ve learn to like those characters.

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