Friday, 17 February 2012

Movie #17 - The Descendants

The Descendants is the latest from Alexander Payne, a director who takes his time. He is coming off of a hat-trick of home-run belters: Election, About Schmidt and Sideways (his debut Citizen Ruth, remains little seen: a casualty of Miramax’s whimsy). And while we’re not in Terence Malick territory, a six-year gap between releases means that it’s fair enough to call this ‘long-awaited’.

The film concerns Honolulu lawyer Matt King (George Clooney). Despite outward appearances of success – good job, heir to a considerable fortune, nice house, the basic fact of living in Hawai’i – things are not going well for Matt. His wife (Patricia Hastie) is comatose following a boating accident; he is emotionally estranged from his two daughters (Amara Miller, Shailene Woodley); his father-in-law (Robert Forster) is an embittered old grouch – and Matt’s just about to find out that, prior to her accident, his wife had been conducting an affair with a local realtor.

Then looming in the background is a sub-plot regarding the controversial multi-million dollar sale of Matt’s ancestral family real estate – prime, virgin Kauai land – over which Matt has final say ahead of his multitudinous cousins (led by Beau Bridges); does he take the money from the big developers and live with yet another holiday complex spoiling the landscape, could he leave the land untouched (and his family much worse off) – or can he find another way?

I’m a big fan of Alexander Payne – he has a Coen-like impishness and facility to deal in the tragic and the comic, but much more closely rooted in the mundane. On the face of it the story (based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel) is catnip for Payne, mith plenty of opportunity for pathos and farce. But, despite wanting to love The Descendants, I have to concede that it’s a moderate failure. But it’s not all bad news – let’s have a look at the good stuff first:

·         One of the great aspects of cinema is its ability to give you a window into a world you didn’t know before. Hawaii is familiar to us all as an archetypal holiday destination, a name that instantly conjures up sand, surf and hula, but how many of us ever think about the place as an actual, functioning society? Paul Theroux came close with his lovely novel Hotel Honolulu, and fans of Dog the Bounty Hunter (who gets a little nod early on) will have glimpsed the seedier side of Paradise, but I can’t think of any other film that has successfully communicated the everyday life of this unusual and miraculous place (ironic, given how frequently Hawaii has itself ‘played’ other locations as a film set).
·         And from beautiful Hawaii to Gorgeous George. It goes beyond cliché to describe Clooney as ‘an old fashioned movie star’, but that’s what he is: a handsome, charismatic leading man of the old Cary Grant school (and therefore slightly unbelievable as a cuckold). But he can act, too – and is not afraid to make an ass of himself, schlubbing around in loud, ill-fitting shirts and running inefficiently in flip-flops.
·         The rest of the cast: OK, so I tend always to praise actors, but the supporting ensemble (if that’s possible) are all great, especially the tightly-wound Robert Forster and streetwise Shailene Woodley. And Michael Ontkean’s in it!
·         The film has a great warm, lived-in feel – the production design is all-round lovely and the soundtrack is a low-key gem

So, the downsides:

·         Most crucially, the story just doesn’t quite fit together. That bittersweet mix of farce and tragedy that served Payne so well in Sideways and Election doesn’t quite translate across to Paradise. Too often, the comedy was jarring and misplaced, and a few of the emotional cusps are little cheap or finger-wagging.
·         The character of Shailene Woodley’s boyfriend, while well-played by Nick Krause, seems only to exist to perform the above-mentioned cheap shots, both comic and dramatic. It would’ve been a more successful film without him.
·         Beside the climax – which is both dramatically ‘earned’ and emotionally powerful – much of the film meanders and ponders; there are too many characters that go nowhere (a common failing of literary adaptations) and the main subplot itself sits uneasily with the foreground story of infidelity and loss, particularly as they later become entwined.

So not a great film, but also a long way from bad. Perhaps I’ve scored this more generously than it deserves; but I can’t help it: despite the flaws I enjoyed spending time with the film. It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry, and it gives you a window into a world you don’t normally see: and that sounds like good cinema.



  1. This is a film that I am convinced I am going to love. Why? Well, two reasons. I grew up in Hawai'i and really enjoy everything Payne has done (and to an extent, Clooney as well).

    Truth be told, I started to skim your review once I picked up on the negative vibe...I hope to see it and revisit you.

  2. It's not entirely negative, y'know - 7/10's a pretty decent mark! The whole Hawai'ian aspect was one of the best things about the film; I've been fascinated by teh place ever since studying geology at school then archaeology at university. It's miracle of human endeavour - a settled, advanced society on the most remote speck of land on the planet.