Alexander Payne returns seven years after Sideways with an adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel starring George Clooney as Matt King, a man with too much on his plate. Matt is in charge of choosing a buyer for a large area of ancestral land in Hawaii, a sale which will benefit his extended family financially while harming the unspoiled land. He is also dealing with a wife in a coma she will never wake from and two unruly daughters he hasn’t been alone with for seven years. When his oldest daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) reveals that his wife was having an affair Matt decides to hunt down her lover Brian before she dies.
If this all sounds a bit too much to take in, you know how I felt in the first twenty minutes; the situation with the ancestral land confused me and seemed completely irrelevant. Luckily it all tied together in the end and I almost understand what was going on now.
The story at the core of the film is the rebuilding of the relationship between Matt and Alex as they hunt down Brian. The one thing that unites this estranged pair is their hatred of Brian and the feeling of betrayal and anger towards their comatose mother/wife. Clooney is on fine form in the less than suave role, much better playing an oaf than trying to be cool like in last year’s The American, and Shailene Woodley certainly makes an impression as his bold daughter. Let’s put Woodley down for official one-to-watch status.
Payne is the master at making quality comedy dramas and hasn’t lost the knack since his last feature, after the muddle at the start and a few awkward metaphors The Descendants comes together as a touching and hilarious family dramedy.
Special mentions: Nick Krause for bringing heart and humour to a potentially bland role. Rob Huebel, from the amazing Childrens Hospital, for taking the smallest role and squeezing every last laugh from his few line. Beau Bridges for sporting the style made popular by his brother in The Big Lebowski. And finally, Jameson for not just sponsoring the London Film Festival but for getting their product into the film in full view.
The Descendants screens at the London Film Festival on the 23rd and 24th October 2011 and is in UK cinemas on 27th January 2012.