The Descendants ***+

January 12, 2012 by James Berardinelli - Reelviews
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The Descendants may be director Alexander Payne’s finest outing to date. The man who began his career behind the camera with withering satires (Citizen Ruth, Election) has moved into dramatic comedies (About Schmidt, Sideways) that simultaneously observe and comment upon the human condition.

In The Descendants, Payne has provided a sympathetic, heartfelt look at the myriad forces pulling apart a man standing at life’s crossroads. The film works because it eschews the melodrama that could easily creep into a film addressing issues of mortality and family and because, by keeping its sense of humor intact, it never devolves into a means to boost Kleenex sales.
The movie is set in Hawaii, a surprisingly underused location for motion pictures. (Many movies shot there are set elsewhere, like Jurassic Park, for example.) Payne does not dwell overmuch on the beauty of the surroundings (an understandable temptation, one would assume), although The Descendants has its share of pretty images. Although the setting is important – a crucial subplot involves the potential sale of a large parcel of “unspoiled” land – it does not hijack the production and the focus never wavers from the lead character, whose relationships, motivations, and growth as a person form the skeleton and flesh of the story.

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