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Thursday, November 24, 2011

‘The Descendants’ Is Set In Hawaii, But It’s Not All Sunshine And Rainbows


The Descendants:  3 ½ out of 5
Matt King:  I’m just trying to keep my head above water.
I was starting to wonder where Alexander Payne went.  Following the large success of 2004’s Sideways, I was hoping to see more films from him sooner.  Payne has made success out of strong comedy-dramas, with some dark and satiric edges to them and I have been a fan of his films.  Now he has finally come back with a new dramatic feature, with some comedic elements, involving a family man dealing with a trauma, among other issues he faces.  The ace up Payne’s sleeve this time around is having George Clooney as his lead.  While Clooney does get to play it smart and provide one of his best performances, he has also ditched a lot of the things that make him cool.  As a result, this film serves as a well made, low-key drama that doesn’t do a lot that is unexpected in the way of story, but is certainly assured in its writing and performances.


Clooney stars as Matt King, a resident of Hawaii, who begins the film by addressing the idea that people who only visit Hawaii are wrong in assuming its nothing but a place for people to relax.  Matt’s life seems to revolve around few non-stressful situations.  His wife, Elizabeth, recently had a boating accident, which has put her into a coma.   Matt is now forced to pay more attention to his two daughters, having not been as involved beforehand.  His youngest daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), is acting out in school, leaving Matt with few ideas as to how to handle her.  His eldest and more rebellious daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), was away at boarding school, but has been brought back home so she can be there with Scottie and her father.

Along with dealing with his own immediate family, Matt also has his extended family and the state of Hawaii, in fact, to contend with as well.  Matt is a descendant of one of the last white land owners of Hawaii and given his standing, amongst his other family members, he is in a position of deciding whether to broker a major land deal for an untouched area of Kauai.  While many, including his cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), want Matt to sell the land, which would benefit the rest of his family greatly, there are now second thoughts about the deal, given Matt’s situation.  Exacerbating matters further, Matt soon learns that the reason Alexandra and his wife were fighting is because she was having an affair.


The strong performances were the main thing I enjoyed about this film.  Clooney and Woodley both deserve the most recognition, which I’ll refer back to soon, but there is a great supporting cast here as well.  Robert Forster shows up for a few scenes as Matt’s father-in-law, Scott.  What Forster gets to do in a small amount of time is pretty great.  His dialogue delivery is strong and he delivers one of the film’s best moments, but there is also a lot in what he is not saying.  Beau Bridges does some solid work as a guy who could easily be laid back, but is also not afraid of becoming the villain of the film if the time calls for it.  Relative newcomer Nick Krause is in a lot of this film as Alexandra’s boyfriend, Sid, who comes off in a very particular light at first, but manages to alert us that there is much more to him at heart.  Even the young actress portraying Scottie is quite good at playing a character dealing with a very difficult situation, as well as showing how her sister is rubbing off on her.  There is also a role from Judy Greer here, which I don’t want to spoil, but she is very solid as well.

Getting back to the two more noteworthy characters; starting with Woodley, this is really strong work.  I think it is very effective mostly due to how she does not have to betray her age for the sake of the writing.  By this I mean that she plays a 17-year-old, but never sounds wise beyond her age.  Woodley acts rebellious, swears, and is standoffish at times, but all in a sense that is fitting and feels real.  Her emotions ring true.  Clooney, as I mentioned, does something different here by not playing his role with any sense of cool.  He is dialed down, actually similar to the way Jack Nicholson was very dialed down in another Payne film, About Schmidt.  In The Descendants, Clooney feels as if he was charting new territory by dealing with grief, insecurities, and significant responsibilities in the manner of a regular guy.  There are still the elements of being likable and confident, which Clooney always excels at, but he adds some touches, which truly makes it some of his best work as an actor.


The film was based on a novel, but scripted by Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash (the Dean on Community).  It is a well written film in terms of giving the characters a lot to work with.  There are a lot of great scenes that don’t revolve around significant monologues, but instead having characters playing off of each other.  The opening voiceover block felt a bit more like a dump of information to quicken up the first act, but overall I appreciated the way things moved.  I do consider this film a pretty clear drama, a fact that will get by some, given the way it is portrayed as a mix of comedy and drama, yet I do acknowledge that the film has some pretty funny scenes.

My biggest issue that holds me back from appreciating the film more is its straightforwardness.  I appreciate the story and the characters and maybe asking for something that the film isn’t, but there really was not much more to this film beyond the story that we are told to put me in more of a position to really be grabbed by it.  It is a very strong character drama for sure, but I don’t feel I really grasped it in the same way I did with Sideways, due to that film’s poignancy, or my favorite of Payne’s films, Election, due to that film’s sharp, dark wit.


As it stands, The Descendants is a film that I can easily recommend based on the performances and the writing alone.  It does not hurt that it is wonderfully shot, as Hawaii is frankly a pretty great looking place to shoot a film.  Despite this setting though, this is not an easy relaxation film, where you can forget your troubles and watch the Cloonster play it cool.  It is an assured drama with some comedic elements, which gets by based on its strength in treating the characters with respect and playing out appropriately.  And no, we don’t get to see Clooney surf. 
Matt King:  Paradise? Paradise can go fuck itself.

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