The saying, “Blood is thicker than water”, is one of my favorite quotes of all time. It’s a statement that I’ve been able to apply to my life more times than I care to count. Sometimes, family is all you’ve got; the single thread holding your entire life together. Many people take their family for granted, but I’ve always felt that it’s when you need them most do they show their true colors. Sometimes they’re your guardian angel, other times they’re you worst enemies, but family needs to stick together, regardless.
Alexander Payne seems to be a master of the art of adaptation. His second film, Election, starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick, was based off of a novel of the same name, and received critical acclaim. This marked the beginning of a trend that would follow with Payne’s next three adaptations, About Schmidt, Sideways, and this year’s, The Descendants.
The Descendants stars George Clooney as Matthew King, a lawyer who is given the decision of what to do with an extremely large property that his family has owned since the 1860’s. While this is happening, his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), suffers a severe boating accident, putting her into a coma, as well as being forced to go on life support. King is now in charge of the land, his wife’s condition, and his two children, Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alex (Shailene Woodley), one a precocious ten-year-old, the other a seventeen going on thirty year old who’s been in boarding school since the previous Christmas. Along with the family is Sid (Nick Krause), Alex’s closest friend, a somewhat dim-witted but good-hearted kid who is sometimes the only thing keeping everyone from killing one another.
Matt soon finds out that his wife will not be waking up from her coma, and it’s his duty to notify everyone of this, including her father, Scott Thorson (Robert Forster), who’s got a tough exterior, but is more patient and sympathetic than almost any character in the film. The rest of Matt’s family continues to pressure him about the specifics of the deal, and all Matt wants to do is make his decision alone and at peace.
Early in the film, Matt learns that his wife was having an affair with a man named David Speer (Matthew Lillard), a realtor in Hawaii. I’ve always felt that Lillard is an extremely underused and underrated actor, and even though his appearance in The Descendants is merely an extended cameo (if that), he has a presence that, to me, steals the show no matter what he’s doing.
The film itself is brilliant, with the ability to be quite plot heavy and yet play out so effortlessly and with such hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking results, that you can’t help but get attached to the characters. The characters themselves are layered and real; enough to the point where you feel you know them by the end of the film. They’re realistic people with actual problems, and we can sense this and we feel for them. The acting by every actor involved is absolutely brilliant. George Clooney gives another fantastic performance, as does the entire supporting cast.
The Hawaiian setting adds a level of both peace and tension. The film makes it very clear that this place is no permanent vacation spot. I have a friend who was raised in Hawaii, and from what he’s told me, and what I saw in the film, the little Hawaiian nuances are captured perfectly, from the very specific and sometimes subtle dialect, to the mannerisms and common household rules, it’s all quite mesmerizing how they managed to perfect it all.
As I mentioned before, The Descendants is based off of a 2007 novel of the same name. As a fan of the source material, the film adaptation does more than justice to the original novel, by being faithful enough to please fans, but not too faithful to the point where it’s a carbon copy of the novel, therefore singling out viewers who may have not read the novel.
The Descendants is a beautiful and heartbreaking portrait of a dysfunctional family that will give us all something to relate to. As for its R-Rating, yes its themes are heavy, but other than the language, I feel as if The Descendants is akin to a film released earlier this year, Terri; a movie that both kids and adults can relate to, sometimes in different ways, sometimes in the same. Regardless, The Descendants is a must watch for anyone who’s ever breathed in air. It may possibly be the best film of the year, but I can’t speak too soon.