Credits: Directed by Alexander Payne and starring George Clooney, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Rob Huebel, Robert Forster, Michael Ontkean, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Sonya Balmores and Mary Birdsong.
Details: (MA15+), 115 mins, In Cinemas 12 January 2012, United States, English
Synopsis: Matt King (George Clooney) is a middle age Hawaiian who runs a trust responsible for millions of dollars worth of untouched real estate that has been passed down to him and various cousins. He is preparing to sell the area, and make millions for everyone in the trust, when his wife (Patricia Hastie) suffers a severe head trauma during a boat race. As he attempts to get her affairs in order, he learns that she had been having an affair with a young real estate broker (Matthew Lillard). With his two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) in tow, Matt sets off to confront the man who made him a cuckold.
A minor work from a major talent.
As a filmmaker Alexander Payne does one thing and he does it extremely well. Per About Schmidt and Sideways, The Descendants catches a man at a turning point in his life, struggling to relate to those around him and unable to make sense of his new circumstances. His films turn on emotional realisations – bittersweet and somewhat unexpected – that provide a sense of transition. Payne makes small, keenly observed works and part of his appeal is that few other commercial filmmakers tread the same path, while television is full of lesser weekly imitators.
The Descendants is a good film, but it’s also recognisable as a Payne work without necessarily taking him past previous highs. It’s seven years since Sideways, for example, and it’s apparent that Payne has not enhanced his visual vocabulary. He still tells his story with dialogue and closing close-ups that linger, and for a film set on the Hawaiian Islands there’s little sense of the light or the landscape. That’s partially intentional – the opening narration pours scorn on anyone who thinks personal distress or failure can’t occur in a tropical paradise – but for a writer who peels away the layers of his protagonists he’s merely capable visually.
His plotting also contributes a sombre tone: Matt King (George Clooney) is a Honolulu-based real estate lawyer whose wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is in a life-threatening coma following a speedboat racing accident. Matt has to come to grips with his two daughters, the rebellious 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley) and pugnacious 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), with whom he’s long been the back-up parent, as well as deciding the fate of a vast parcel of pristine land held by a family trust whose sale to a developer could make the many cousins of the extended King clan far richer than they already are.
Like several of his features, The Descendants comes both with a deadline and an amusing straggler picked up along the way, in this case Alex’s surfer bro pal Sid (Nick Krause), whose first major act is to unintentionally antagonise Elizabeth’s salty father, Scott Thorson (Robert Forster), to the point of physical violence. In this world of flip-flops, bright shirts and tropical homes words are often sharper than the environment (although the director takes a few shortcuts with music playing over crucial dialogue so it’s unheard), and Payne, who shares writing credit with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, uses wry humour and sudden outbursts to show how unprepared we are for life’s bad turns and that the concept of doing the right thing merely accentuates the misery.
Clooney’s charisma has a worn out quality here, and Payne’s final gambit is to make him a cuckold, with Matt learning that Elizabeth was having an affair with a boyish real estate agent, Bryan (Matthew Lillard, putting years of screechy zaniness behind him). The film shows us that we expect and what we discover are invariably two different things, and that there’s no single way to explain a person: Sid is surprisingly rounded, Scott is suddenly gentle when faced with his still, silent daughter. But the ultimate focus is less on character, which made Sideways savagely revelatory, than acceptance. The Descendants is about the onset and recognition of grief, and for all the moments of personal recognition it never achieves transcendence. It’s a small film with a surprisingly small horizon.
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