(new TV spot in advance of tomorrow’s premiere in NY and LA)
Already standing in strong position with the critics, The Descendants stock rises with raves today from A.O. Scott, Glenn Kenny, Betsy Sharkey and the rare 4-star review from Peter Travers. [Travers’ review now UPDATED with expanded excerpt]
The New York Times, A.O. Scott:
Mr. Payne — immeasurably aided by a dazzlingly gifted, doggedly disciplined cast — nimbly sidesteps the sentimental traps that lurk within the film’s premise. He somehow achieves the emotional impact of good melodrama and the hectic absurdity of classic farce without ever seeming to exaggerate. There are times when you laugh or gasp in disbelief at what has just happened… and yet every moment of the movie feels utterly and unaffectedly true.
…the most striking and satisfying aspects of “The Descendants” are its unhurried pace and loose, wandering structure.
In most movies the characters are locked into the machinery of narrative like theme park customers strapped into a roller coaster. Their ups and downs are as predetermined as their shrieks of terror and sighs of relief, and the audience goes along for the ride. But the people in this movie seem to move freely within it, making choices and mistakes and aware, at every turn, that things could be different.
Matt in particular is overwhelmed, and sometimes paralyzed, by the necessity of choosing, and the brilliance of Mr. Clooney’s performance lies in his ability to convey indecision, hesitation and the precipitous tumble into error. Matt gets a lot of things right in the end, but along the way he mishandles nearly everything, sometimes because of impulsiveness and sometimes because he is paralyzed, unable to trust or locate his own best instincts.
This actor’s instincts, meanwhile, have never been keener or more generous. Mr. Clooney, bolstered by his effortless magnetism, has always been an excellent ensemble player, and while he is at the center of “The Descendants,” he does not dominate the movie. Everyone in it is wonderful… But each person who shows up on screen, even for a minute or two with nothing especially important to accomplish, has an odd and memorable individuality. “The Descendants,” streamlining Ms. Hemmings’s ample and engaging book, seems to unfold within a vast landscape of possible stories. What happens to Matt, Scottie and Alex is just a thread in a tapestry of incidents and relationships that has no real end.
Mr. Payne, with a light touch and a keen sense of place — this Hawaii is as real and peculiar as the Nebraska of “About Schmidt” or the California wine country of “Sideways” — has made a movie that, for all its modesty, is as big as life. Its heart is occupied by grief, pain and the haunting silence of Elizabeth, whose version of events is the only one we never hear. And yet it is also full of warmth, humor and the kind of grace that can result from our clumsy attempts to make things better.
MSN, Glenn Kenny
A movie as good as “The Descendants” is both a gift to the weary film reviewer and a kind of burden. I know, I know: How so? The new film, co-written and directed by Alexander Payne, his first feature since 2004’s much-acclaimed “Sideways,” is such an exceptional pleasure to experience, so assured at every turn and so humane and engaged and absorbing, that even as a critic (and I admit I can only really speak for myself here, but indulge me and play along, please) is blown away by how well it’s working, he or she wishes most ardently to turn off the analytic apparatus and just melt into the viewing experience. It’s the kind of comedic drama, or dramatic comedy, that one just wants to settle in with, so seemingly effortlessly does it carry one along. It works like a charm, that is, to the extent that one’s critic self wants to resist the urge to break down why it’s working.
…The film’s pacing (the editor is Kevin Tent) feels as effortlessly achieved as breathing. All of the actors, from the amazing Clooney to Woodley to Amara Miller as her ingenuous (or is she?) younger sister, to Robert Forster’s grim, nasty father-in-law, to Judy Greer and Matthew Lillard as character’s you’d be better off discovering on your own, all the way through to Patricia Hastie, who knocks it out of the park, as they say, playing Elizabeth, a character who is comatose in all but a single shot, bolster the spell of genuine life and emotion unfolding in front of your eyes.
Payne has been criticized in the past before for making snide satirical points at the expense of his characters and their sentimentalities; I’ve not entirely agreed with those criticisms, but I doubt that those who’ve made them will find any such fault with “The Descendants.” While you couldn’t call Payne’s eye and tone here entirely uncritical, I think the occasional wry skepticism inherent in its overall perspective, which for lack of a better word here I’ll call “humanist,” is perfectly judged at every turn here. It’s one of the many things that makes “The Descendants” such a cinematic joy. It’s a movie I’m looking forward to revisiting many times, more than a few with my analysis apparatus switched off.
Rolling Stone, Peter Travers:
“If there’s something fundamentally wrong with The Descendants, I can’t find it. What I see ranks high on the list of the year’s best films. Director Alexander Payne is a master of the human comedy, of the funny, moving and messy details that define a fallible life. In adapting the 2009 novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, Payne and co-screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have given George Clooney the context to deliver the finest, truest and most emotionally raw performance of his career. Clooney has never exposed himself to the camera this openly, downplaying the star glamour and easy charm. Even the laughs come with a sting.
…Payne walks the high wire between humor and heartbreak with unerring skill. No net. Just when you think you have him figured, you haven’t. The scene in which Alexandra sprawls on a sofa and slams her clueless dad with a catalog of domestic betrayals is devastating. Dynamite is the word for Woodley (TV’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager), who deserves to join Clooney and the movie on the march to awards glory.
…It’s been seven years since Payne directed Sideways, but he hasn’t lost his touch. I feared a cliché tsunami when Matt hauls the family, including Alexandra’s stoner boyfriend, Sid (a terrific Nick Krause), off to Kauai to confront his wife’s realtor lover, Brian Speer (a revelatory Matthew Lillard, a long way from Scooby-Doo). Instead, Payne turns the seemingly banal into a vastly entertaining and acutely perceptive meditation on what defines family. The actors could not be better, from Robert Forster, as Matt’s hardass father-in-law, to Judy Greer, who turns three scenes as Brian’s cheated-on wife into an explosive tour de force. Payne knows Clooney’s face makes a bruised and eloquent canvas. Matt ultimately speaks blunt truths to his comatose wife, his eyes reflecting long-buried ferocity and feeling. The film ends in family silence in what only appears to be a throwaway. With Payne, every beat counts. As the film’s soundtrack deftly blends traditional and modern Hawaiian music, Payne provokes timeless questions about race, class, conscience and identity. Payne’s low-key approach only deepens the film’s intimate power. Want a movie you can really connect with? The Descendants is damn near perfect.
The Los Angeles Times, Betsy Sharkey:
As Payne has a habit of doing, he starts with a whole raft of issues then keeps his main players in an almost continuous state of conflict. It is part of what makes Hemmings’ novel, riddled with tough choices yet humanistic in its tone, such a natural for the filmmaker. Told from the point of view of Matt in middle-age, he is a man being forced by circumstance to become the father he was meant to be, the husband he’d forgotten he was. Adapted quite faithfully by the director and Groundlings vets Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the film is conversational in its pathos, wry in its wisdom, very much an extension of the smart, sardonic sensibility Payne brought to “Sideways,” and “About Schmidt.” (The filmmaker shared the screenwriting Oscar with Jim Taylor for “Sideways.”)
…But the filmmaker is concerned with more than just Matt’s immediate family or his immediate problems. It delves into the notion of legacies — the good and bad that we inherit, the love and hate we leave behind. It also deals with the raw emotions that life-threatening moments stir up, a very rare bit of honest refection for an American movie.
…The ensemble of actors reflects Payne’s penchant for unconventional casting, many playing against type, like Lillard trading “Scooby-Doo” silliness for drama. Even the smallest roles feel authentic. That attention to detail can be found throughout the film — the pile of shoes left on the porches to keep sand out of houses; the ICU with its floor-to-ceiling glass walls the better to see crises in a glance; the traditional Hawaiian music, much of it from the late slack-key guitar legend Gabby Pahinui.
But this is Clooney’s show and he is hands-down terrific as a harried father and wary husband trying to make up for lost time. All the slick patter of “Ocean’s Eleven” has been set aside, all the diffidence dropped, no traces of Clooney the player remain. Instead the actor has opened up his heart, allowing waves of resentment and regret to batter him, loyalty and love to test him. Who would have thought that one of the last true Hollywood stars would find himself in this ordinary man who deals in very ordinary ways with life in all of its wonderful, wounded whimsy.