Ian Frazier ’15
Just a snippet of Frazier’s Top 100.
By: Ian Frazier
Published February, 2014
Alexander Payne (Sideways) continues to master the comedy-drama genre, and it is never more evident than in The Descendants. The film, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, features George Clooney as Matt King, a resident of Hawaii, whose wife is left in a coma after a boating accident. Matt, caring for his hospitalized wife, is caught off guard when he learns she was having an affair for some time. After much deliberation, he decides to take his two daughters (Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller) to confront his wife’s lover before she dies.
Throughout the story, the superb acting manages to compensate for the lack of action or perpetual humor, the case with seemingly every Alexander Payne film; at least one actor has been nominated for an Academy Award in each of his last four full length films. The most prominent of these compelling portrayals is brought to the screen by Shailene Woodley (The Spectacular Now) as Alexandra King, Matt’s oldest and most rebellious daughter. Woodley, making her feature film debut, is able to hold her own next to an already-established Clooney. Her character goes through, arguably, the most development, displaying Woodley’s significant range as an actress. She is able to convey this transformation brilliantly, making her character the most interesting to watch.
The factor that drives the film is the evolving relationship of Matt and Alexandra, riveting due to the on-screen chemistry of Clooney and Woodley. Matt initially patronizes Alexandra because of her lackadaisical approach to school, along with her drinking habits. However, as the movie progresses, so does the bond between father and daughter. Matt, realizing his wife’s impending death, begins to treat Alexandra more like a friend. Their new relationship creates an unmistakable pathos for the viewer.
Counterbalancing Woodley’s gripping performance is that of Nick Krause. Krause plays Sid, Alexandra’s shortsighted boyfriend, who does not really have an apparent purpose in the film, with the exception of the occasional comedic relief. However, even when Sid takes the opportunity to contribute an amusing line or incoherent babble, the result is nothing more than incongruous moments that do nothing for a story that is otherwise captivating. To be fair, the foolish dialogue from Sid cannot be blamed on Krause’s acting ability, but rather the poor writing for the character. Occasionally, the film also stumbles during moments of conversation. Some exchanges between characters, especially in the closing scenes, are far too polished, and do not even remotely resemble real-world communication. However, these instances are few in number, and, overall, the film’s writing is elegant and completely worthy of its Oscar victory.
In totality, The Descendants is able to tell a complete, enthralling tale through rich character development alone. Clumsy dialogue is rare, and stellar performances are ample. The film is easily Alexander Payne’s most powerful work to date.
Year Released: 2011
Director: Alexander Payne
Stars: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller
Best performance: Shailene Woodley
Most memorable scene(s): The confrontation
Most memorable quote: “You give your children enough money to do something but not enough to do nothing.”
The Descendants ranks 38th in Ian Frazier’s Top 100 Movie List.