A couple of months ago, I reviewed About Schmidt, writer/director Alexander Payne’s breakthrough picture to widespread critical acclaim (Election was also well-beloved if less acclaimed). It didn’t quite strike me at the same emotional level as Payne’s satirical masterpiece (and in my mind, the best dark comedy of the 2000s) Sideways, but that may only be because I am unable at this point in my life (as a 23 year old) to completely relate to the subject matter of a man coming to terms with his wife’s death and his own finite mortality. I also just thought that Sideways was simply funnier (but it was also trying to be funnier in its own tragic way). Alexander Payne is almost like Terrence Malick in his perfectionist pursuit of the just right story to tell, and there were seven years between Sideways and Payne’s newest film, the Academy Award-winning, The Descendants. The brilliance of Sideways must be a massive burden for Payne at this point because once again, a wonderful and honest film seems somehow slight compared to the man’s opus though that shouldn’t stop anyone from checking out one of the most poignant films of 2011.

The Descendants, based off the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, is the tragicomic tale of Matt King (George Clooney) and his attempts to come to terms with the impending death of his wife and the challenges of raising his two daughters on his own. When his wife winds up in a coma with no chance of waking up (which means she’s going to die because her will has a “Do Not Resuscitate” order), Matt, a Hawaiian lawyer, is shaken out of his humdrum existence. Matters only get more complicated when he finds out from his daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) that his wife was having an affair. As Matt has to weigh his responsibilities as a father and a husband, he tries to find the man who was sleeping with his wife all while he also has to make a major decision about whether or not to sell a 25,000 acre plot of real estate that’s been in his family since the 1860s. Whether it’s telling his friends and family that his wife is going to die or dealing with the emotional landmine that is his 17 year old and 10 year old daughters, Matt has more on his emotional plate than any one man should have to deal with.

I’ve only seen one other performance so far from this year’s slate of Academy Award nominated male leads (Brad Pitt in Moneyball). However, out of all of the Best Picture nominees I’ve seen so far (and the other films from 2011 for that matter), George Clooney has given hands down the best performance. The Descendants is probably the best performance from one of the last remaining icons of the big screen. The man makes aging seem so graceful and elegant and he has a Gary Cooper-esque statesmen quality in this role (not to mention, a slight physical resemblance to the aging Cooper). Matt King is a complex and nuanced role that would be too easy to overplay. However, King, the character, is all about emotional restraint and subdued pain, and Clooney captures it almost effortlessly. You always think King is going to be on the verge of a major emotional breakdown, and you can see Clooney channeling all of King’s heartbreak while also maintaining the barely held strength needed for his two daughters. His Golden Globe win was well deserved. Shailene Woodley made her big-screen debut in this film (which also earned her a Golden Globe nomination), and for a young actress as talented as her, I hope this means she can now stop making terrible ABC Family programming like The Secret Life of the American Teenager.

Alexander Payne’s script/direction (as well as the source material) was as brutally honest and “real” as ever. Much like About Schmidt, The Descendants falls heavily into the drama territory of the tragicomic dramedy field. There are plenty of laughs in this film (mostly coming from Shailene Woodley and King’s other daughter, Scottie [Amara Miller]), but for the most part, The Descendants thrusts the viewer into one incredibly awkward experience after another. It wrests some genuine truths about life out of King’s suffering, and over the course of the film, you learn more about how to appreciate what you have in life instead of holding grudges or focusing on material possessions. I don’t want to call it a “small” film because it’s philosophical ambitions are much larger than that, but it’s certainly a quiet movie that doesn’t beat you over the head with pretentious moralizing and instead lets the simple beauty (and pain and awkwardness) of life wash over you. It’s strange that a movie that made me so physically uncomfortable at moments also managed to feel like the most uplifting film of the year behind The Tree of Life.

However, I do have a small gripe with the film that keeps it from being as memorable as Sideways and potentially even falling short of About Schmidt (at least in this one regard). Matthew King never develops into as complete and memorable a character as Jack Nicholson’s Warren Schmidt or Paul Giamatti’s Miles Raymond. For the most part, Matthew King is a completely sympathetic and likeable hero. Besides not being completely in touch with his own emotions, I can’t really point out any major flaws in King’s character which makes him seem like such an unlikely hero for an Alexander Payne picture. While there are some profound differences in his personal life (and business life) by the end of the film, King seems to be a virtually unchanged man by the film’s end. The character who seemed to undergo the most appreciable shift was Alex. In that regard, the ultimate character arc (in a film that can most easily be classified as a character study) was slightly disappointing. It doesn’t effect the larger themes about life and family that the film uses but the lack of a truly memorable character (even if George Clooney sold the hell out of the role) at the center of the film kept it from being a truly great picture.

This was the seventh film nominated for Best Picture that I’ve reviewed out of this year’s ten nominees which means I only need to see The Artist and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to finally finish that project up. Since The Artist doesn’t even have a DVD release date, it’s anybody’s guess as to when I’ll finally get around to watching it. At this point though, The Tree of Life has been the clear frontrunner for not only the Best Picture of this year but the best picture since 2009’s The Road. I can’t make that final judgment until I see the last two films but I’m 99% sure that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close isn’t going to dethrone a Terrence Malick flick since it’s unashamedly kitsch exploitation of an American tragedy. Lord knows it won’t be too long before I’m doing this whole charade over again for the best pictures of 2012.

Final Score: A-

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