The Descendants Review

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The Descendants is up for a whole slew of Academy Awards (5 to be exact, but “a whole slew” sounds more impressive) including best picture. George Clooney also picked up his seemingly annual nomination for best actor for his role in this film. For many that’s less than shocking… I think the Academy would nominate George for just about anything, but I am not as generous- I still remember his role as the not-so-Dark Knight with nipples. However, even with that in mind, The Descendants and George deserve their nominations.
Although, I wouldn’t claim that George is this film’s main key to success; I believe that is an honor that falls in the lap of the films writer/director Alexander Payne. Luckily the Academy seems to agree with me, and has given him the nomination for best director and best adapted screenplay to go along with the best picture nod.

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“I want to camp!”

Anyone who has seen any of Payne’s earlier films will notice the same feel and themes present in his latest, The Descendants. In fact the whole time I watched this film I kept feeling like this was the more chipper younger sister of his Merlot sales effecting film, Sideways (2004) which coincidentally was also nominated for 5 Academy Awards. In these films Payne constantly keeps his stories grounded in the real world and presents them in a purposely no-frills un-Hollywood way. His characters are portrayed as real people and seem to feel emotions just as real, and the best part is they handle them just as all of us in the real world do – quite awkwardly.

While looking at the subject matter of The Descendants one may feel tackling adultery, a death of a parent, teenage angst, the loss of a child’s innocence, the commercialization of paradise, and in-law relations all in one film seems like it would be a lot to swallow. However these themes are the fabric of everyday life in the real world, and thus Payne has made them the fabric of the characters’ everyday lives. The point of the film isn’t to depict the conquering or ridding of these conflicts from one’s life, but instead accepting them and learning to cope with these events. The characters’ struggles are to stay afloat among their troubles and joys instead of drowning in them- as depicted literally on screen by Alexandra King, played by Shailene Woodley, when she is told of her mother’s imminent death while swimming.

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 “Speaking of retarded.”

Although The Descendants felt very familiar to Sideways, there was a key difference which I felt really opened this movie up to a much broader audience than Sideways– George Clooney’s voice over throughout the beginning of the film. While I loved Sideways and appreciated all the awkward beats and silent scenes which I felt helped paint the life of Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, as awkward and uncomfortable, I could see how it would be perceived as boring or too “artsy” for the general public. Matt King’s life in the opening of The Descendants is presented just as awkward and filled with similarly silent and uncomfortable shots. However Payne uses a voice over during most of these scenes to help point out what is being represented on the screen. At times I felt voice over was a bit too redundant, but overall I enjoyed the change in style. Plus people like a soothing narrator, which is why we all watched March of the Penguins just to hear Morgan Freeman’s silky smooth voice.

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George’s Spy Kids skills coming in handy.

The acting in the film is near perfect and every character comes off very believable. From George’s performance as, Matt King, to the Hawaiian doppelganger of Two and a Half Men’s Jake Harper- Sid, played by Nick Krause, everyone plays their part well and never tries to overshoot their role. Matt King’s two daughters Alex and Scottie, played by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller respectively, really nail their roles and bring layers and levels of emotions that their adult costars couldn’t have hoped to portray without them. In fact, Shailene Woodley does such a good job that she should have been nominated for best actress in a supporting role, and that’s a fact- not my opinion. Indeed  after their work this year, I see good things in store for Woodley and Emma Stone alike. Which means there is hope that not every teenage girl role will be given to Selena Gomez or My-Cy.

Is it the best drama of all time? No. Does it do exactly what it set out to do near flawlessly? I believe so. The Descendants is written well, shot well, directed well, and acted splendidly. It is an emotional film that stays grounded through subtle humor and thus never falls in to the melodramatic sphere so many dramatic films do. It deserves to be, and will be a strong contender at the Oscars this year.

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The Archipelago

Final Thoughts

The Descendants is a very high quality modern family drama. It is emotional, funny, sad, and hopeful all at the same time. If you enjoyed Sideways I’m sure you’ll love it, and even if you didn’t but you like good drama (not Twilight drama) you will probably still like it as it is far more uplifting. It’s no surprise it was nominated for best picture at this year’s Oscars.

Nerdy Critic Score

4 out of 5 Frozen Vegetable Packs to the Head

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