Movie Review: "The Descendants" by Alex Schopp

Over the next few days (and all coming weeks to follow) we're going to start a regular post detailing a specific movie review of our liking (or disliking). There will only be one writer assigned to a specific movie, so there won't be any overlap. Right now, before the Oscar winners are announced, we'll probably put more focus on some of the more notable Oscar contenders from 2011. After that's all said and done though we'll just keep up with films as they're released.

So, one of the first ones I wanted to write about then - since I just watched this the other night - is Alexander Payne's "The Descendants". I hope you'll bear with me as I try to get into my groove here. This is my first official movie review (publicly at least) so we're going to feel it out together. Hopefully by the time all is said and done I'll have reached some level of cohesion and this won't all be a bumbling mess. But we'll see..

I guess to start out, I love character dramas. They're probably my favorite theme of movie right now. So this was one I was really looking forward to. Right off the bat, I completely bought into George Clooney's character and the lifestyle he was accustomed to in Hawaii. This was a guy who had plenty of money - both family and earned - and was used to fulfilling a certain role, that of provider. As a dad and husband, it doesn't appear that he was ever really there emotionally for any of them though. Early on, we find out that his wife had been cheating on him with a local Realtor for quite some time, and his daughters barely talk to him because he knows nothing about them or their interests. But with his wife's sudden and tragic accident that leaves her in a terminal comma, everything comes crashing down and he's left to deal with all the broken pieces. And on top of all of it, he's still trying to orchestrate the selling of his family's land to the highest bidder - something that's being strongly pushed on him by his distant relatives that are all looking for a quick buck. As the movie progresses, we watch as things continue to fall apart for this man. Every scene puts him in a situation seemingly worse than before. But, through all of the anguish and turmoil, somehow or another, this man is able to get it all together. And what comes out on the other side isn't a perfect finished product. It's a real man that has struggled for the past couple of weeks with all of this and is trying to get through it the best any of us would. It's emotional and honestly at many points just plain depressing, but it feels real and you believe Clooney's character in this role. The supporting actors in the this also do a really good job. There was a lot of buzz for his teenage daughter, played by Shailene Woodley, to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for this role. Though she wasn't able to eke it out, if it would have happened it would have been well received in my book. Most of the other actors in this don't get a whole lot of screen time, but when they do show up, they perform quite well. I thought the casting of this was very well done, even for the role that Matthew Lillard filled that had me more than skeptical at the beginning. But he pulls it off.

What stood out to me the most in this movie was the writing, and specifically of the characters. When you're creating a dramatic piece like this, you live and die by your characters. A lot of love and time has to go into making them all come off as real people dealing with real issues just like any of us would. And while I've never written anything like this myself, I can imagine the task of that is incredibly difficult. The script as a whole had a nice flow to it, and kept me interested throughout. The story was very robust though. There was so much going on in this, and every time Payne added another element it seemed that it would be too much for one story line to handle. But it never quite boils over and Payne actually pulls it off quite well, never letting anything get too out of control.

As for negatives, I honestly don't really have a lot to offer up. If anything, I will say that there was never that moment in this that really got at me and gave me that wow feeling. Or that moment that emotionally smacked you in the face and reminded you how powerful what was happening actually was. While writing about it though, over time, that may end up being more of a good thing than anything. It came off very genuinely. There wasn't a lot of flair or pizzazz to it, it was just intricately put together and it let its writing do the talking. Also, I feel like where I'm at in my life isn't the ideal place for the perfect demographic for this film. If I were married or had ever been cheated on or even had kids, I think this would be so much more powerful. As I watched it, I still felt for him, but I had no relatable history in my life to connect it to. So there's that. Otherwise, I found it to be a great piece of work by Alexander Payne and George Clooney, both of whom are very deservedly being nominated for Academy Awards in directing and acting, respectively, this year.

So bottom line, was this my favorite film of the year? No. There were plenty of other films that I "enjoyed" more. This movie is dramatic. It's emotional. If you're looking for something fun to see while hanging out with your friends, this one might not fit the bill. But if you're looking for something to do one afternoon and you can happen to catch this at your local theater, I highly recommend stopping in and absorbing yourself in this film. It's very well done and definitely worth a watch.