Monday, November 28, 2011

The Descendants

The descendants survey their past. (Copyright Fox Searchlight Pictures.)
In The Descendants, the new film directed by Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways), George Clooney plays Matt King, a lawyer closing a development deal on twenty-five thousand acres of property on Oahu, Hawaii – property that he is the baron of, being an heir to royalty, and must handle in consideration of his many cousins. This familial obligation, critical to the future of the island, takes him away from his immediate family, however. In his own words, he’s “the back-up parent.” When his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) falls into a coma after a water-skiing accident, Matt has to care for his two daughters: ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and seventeen-year-old Alexandra or “Alex” (Shailene Woodley), who goes to a boarding school on the main island.

The day after Matt learns that his wife will not recover, with her living will stipulating that she be removed from life-support, he finds out from Alex that his wife was having an affair. Payne, who adapted the Kaui Hart Hemmings novel with co-screenwriters Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, manages to make The Descendants quite funny at times, amidst all the pathos. You’ll likely hear of this more often in the soon-approaching awards season and best-of lists. The film has several scenes that change gears in an instant, and the actors are well served throughout. Clooney does some of his best work, as someone who has to regard essentially everything in a new light, and Woodley, in a strong major film debut, shares much of the heavy lifting with him, being hurried into adulthood in the wake of tragedy. 

The story gains its propulsion after Matt and Scottie bring Alex home, when Matt and Alex share their respective, devastating news. Alex has to confront that her strong-willed, adventurous mother is in fact dying, and Matt has to deal with the knowledge that his wife was in love with someone else. Of course, they can’t in actuality confront Elizabeth, so they help each other with these new burdens. There’s a bit of a father and daughter “buddy cop” feel to some of the plot, as they track down the man Elizabeth was seeing. Alex’s friend Sid (Nick Krause) joins them, and provides much of the comic relief. As this aspect of the story unfolds so does the looming land deal – with Matt meeting his many cousins (all eligible for a colossal inheritance) as he hops islands – along with the bearing of bad news to Elizabeth’s family and friends, with Matt encouraging them to visit her while having to couch her secret in the process. The sense of urgency contrasts nicely with the perception of life in paradise, and it’s refreshing to see parts of Hawaii that aren’t normally shown on postcards. 

The film almost can’t help but be gorgeous, and the cinematography by Phedon Papamichael takes in some magnificent vistas in varying degrees of light to compliment the changing tones of the story. Beyond the readily apparent themes of family obligations, I found that The Descendants spoke to something rather unique, and it handled it with nuance: that if not for personal catastrophes, we might continue to regard people in a certain way, without getting a fuller sense of who they are – from family that you’ve “known” all your life, to those who come in to your life because of those catastrophes, and who surprise you. Given this, it would risk spoiling the story to list the great supporting cast, but rest assured that even the minor roles bring important turns to the film. As the characters begin to confront the past in accordance with the present, the film risks turning into a cloying tearjerker, and some of the sparse narration by Clooney can endanger the subtext, but I thought that through its humorous candor and sense of history, it earned its emotional resolution.

1 comment:

  1. Clooney and everybody else included is great but it’s really Payne who shines as the writer bringing out some funny humor but not without forgetting about the real rich moments of human drama. Good review. A good film but not as great as I was expecting.