Reviews

The Descendants

4

A detached father re-connects with his children

Matt King’s life is in meltdown. No surprises there – after all, he’s the protagonist of an Alexander Payne movie.

Think back to high school teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) in Election, so possessed with antipathy (and a sneaky hint of lust) for Reese Witherspoon’s overachieving Tracy Flick that he destroys his marriage and his career in his efforts to thwart her ambitions.

Or depressed, introverted Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) in Sideways, cultivating his snobby wine connoisseurship in a vain effort to stave off his sense of self-loathing.

So Matt (George Clooney) fits right into the pattern – even though he’s a comfortably-off lawyer living in Hawaii, a lineal descendant of King Kamehameha, the last Hawaiian royal. An enviable life, you might think.

But all Matt’s wealth, his luxurious house and lush tropical island surroundings, can’t protect him when disaster strikes. His wife Elizabeth, beautiful and intelligent, lies unconscious in hospital on life-support, having sustained a head injury while water-skiing.

Deadbeat dad

And now Matt, who’s always been something of a semi-detached dad (“I’m the back-up parent, the understudy,” he reflects), finds himself called on to connect, evidently for the first time, with his two daughters, 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and 10-year-old Scotty (Amara Miller).
 
Already both girls are showing signs of disturbance at their mother’s condition – and sooner or later Matt has to pass on to them the doctors’ pessimistic prognosis. So he’s already reeling from the impact of events when he’s hit with a devastating emotional revelation.
 
Payne has always been skilled at muddying together emotions that a less sophisticated filmmaker would give us straight and undiluted; at undercutting tragedy with flashes of comedy or farce.
 
So after Matt’s initial stunned reaction to the bombshell (and Clooney’s subtlety here is impressive, just a minimal eye-widening and a recoil of the head conveying the shock waves of disbelief, pain and incipient fury convulsing his mind), he dashes impulsively round to nearby friends who, he believes, will be able to furnish him with more details.
 
His distress is genuine, but since all he’s got on his feet are plastic deck-shoes, fine for the beach but totally unsuited to speed, his passion-fuelled run becomes a ludicrously sweaty, chuntering galumph, all dignity lost.
 
Elsewhere much of the humour’s injected through the incongruous figure of Alex’s sort-of-boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), a dumb-ass stoner devoid of tact, whom she insists on toting along on all the most fraught family occasions. Sid, it must be said, becomes almost as irritating to us as he is to Matt, and a late reveal that this apparent goofball isn’t quite as insensitive (or as dumbass) as he seems reeks of contrivance.
 
Meanwhile, a subplot involving Matt’s rival, a vapid realtor called Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard, good value in his highest profile role for years) drags on a tad too long, making the second half of the film sag a little here and there. It could be that Payne’s missing the input of his usual co-screenwriter, Jim Taylor, who relocates to co-producing duties this time round.
 
Paradise lost
 
Still, if The Descendantsoccasionally slips a notch below Payne’s highest standards, it’s a wry, intelligent look at the contradictions and complexities of human emotions. And the cast is exemplary, down to the smallest role.
 
Clooney convinces as a man tussling with all the intimate issues he’s spent half his life steering well clear of, and finding himself near breaking point. As Alexandra, Shailene Woodley shines: initially just another bratty, resentful teenager, she soon matures to the point where she’s acting as supportive parent to her own bewildered dad.
 
There are telling cameos from Robert Forster, bristling with anger as Matt’s father-in- law; Beau Bridges as the most affable and avaricious of the cousins; and Judy Greer as Brian’s wife, touchingly wounded on discovering his misdemeanours.
 
And of course, there’s Hawaii. Despite Matt’s disenchanted tirade (“My friends think that just because we live in Hawaii we live in paradise… Paradise can go fuck itself”) Payne doesn’t shy away from showing us the islands’ overwhelming beauty.Nor, being Payne, the tourist tackiness that blights them. If you were looking for the world’s naffest music, this film offers a strong candidate: Hawaiian C&W

Verdict:

A wryly compassionate vision of human fallibility that occasionally threatens to slip off-track, but is anchored by one of Clooney’s strongest performances.

Film Details

User Reviews

    • FBEXanthopoul

      Jan 21st 2012, 15:43

      www.unsungfilms.com by Georgia Xanthopoulou George Clooney, the sea and sun of Hawaii, floral patterns. Still, this isn’t the part one would expect someone with Clooney’s star image would take on. All those who imagined a suntanned Clooney who frolics in Hawaiian waters with a love interest by his side to keep him warm, should go watch The Descendants with no such expectations. Clooney’s character is that of a man in a masculinity crisis, as he is found in a situation where his wife is in a coma and he has to learn how to be a father and a family man. Apart from coping with his two daughters who, in their turn, try to cope with their mother being in the hospital, he also has to make a big financial decision that will affect a huge Hawaiian community as well as track down and face the man his wife was cheating on him with. The film claims Hawaii is not paradise and people have real problems, like everyone else. And I’m sure they do. However, the film doesn’t opt for a serious, dramatic approach to the story but, rather, goes for a lighter, breezier attitude, one that fits perfectly with the entirely Hawaiian soundtrack. The story is simple and a bit kooky, as are the characters, in keeping with the tradition of not only director Alexander Payne’s previous films but also with the tradition of independently produced dramedies of recent years. After all, Alexander Payne rose to fame through independent productions. The film’s sad moments are moving and its funny ones come out of left field, as they should. The story turns out as you expect it to turn out, mostly, which is alright, because it’s not about what happens in the film, but about how everyday people handle some everyday and some not so everyday situations. The simplicity of the film allows for the actors’ performances to shine through and really do all the work, as it is expressiveness and timing in delivering lines that really benefit films like this one. And they do a good job. I must say it was very refreshing seeing George Clooney in a part that seems to bring out his quality as a comical but also a serious actor at the same time. The fact that Clooney spends an entire film being stunned and confused like a fish out of water was quite entertaining as well, since, usually, he portrays much more self-assured men who borderline on arrogant. And as much as the latter type of parts suit him, I ‘m going to go out on a limb and say that the former ones humanise him and strike connections with the audience at a much higher rate. Plus, from his cameo on Friends in 1995 to his role in The Men Who Stare at Goats in 2009, I would argue that funny suits him better than sarcastic. In The Descendants he delivers a nuanced performance which appeals to the audience not only because of its emotional depth but also because of the timing and expressions that make for good comedy. I feel it’s also quite telling of his abilities as a comical actor that Clooney is closer to getting an Oscar as a male lead than ever with this part than he was with any of his previous more ‘serious’ ones (like Michael Clayton). Shailene Woodley’s performance as Matt’s eldest daughter also stands out, and she is extremely convincing as the difficult, confused teenage daughter. Actors’ performances are The Descendants main asset. Ηowever, its spine is its script. As this is not a script based on thrill or shock or even a surprising ending, it’s all about the lines. While we ‘re dealing with the humorous moments or with the more emotional ones, lines are understated but to the point, there to appropriately highlight the tone of each scene. And while the story is not anything extremely original, it narrates the story of a man who learns not only how to be a better father but, also, a better person as he reevaluates his whole and goes through a journey in order to honor his heritage and foster his future. One generation receiving for the last one and caring for the ones to come. The one thing worrying is that his wife had to fall into a coma for him to realize what he needs to do in life… Not just sit him down and have a chat with him… Georgia Xanthopoulou at www.unsungfilms.com

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