Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The Descendants

2011. Dir: Alexander Payne. Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Robert Forster and Nick Krause. ●●●●○



I need to see Alexander Payne Hawaiian dramedy The Descendants again. This is not just because the story is insightful and the performances compelling - although they are - nor is it because I need to see it again to fully appreciate the complexities of the parallels between the two priorities pulling at Clooney's Matt King - although I probably have to. No, the reason I need to see the movie again is simple. At my screening Gorgeous George and the even more gorgeous vistas were upstaged by Mus musculus*, a brave example whose relentless search for abandoned popcorn led him up and down the aisle where I was sitting and in and out of the rows in front and behind.

Therefore please take this review with the tiniest pinch of salt. I may come back to it in October, watching the film again, and update, but for now even being distracted I thought it was a fine dissection of modern morality and the process for dealing with the complex emotional response to grief.



There are two main plot strands concerning our protagonist property lawyer Matt King, an expert performance from George Clooney, on the one hand his wife is in a coma, on the other the vast swathes of Hawaiian land his family have held in trust is reaching the end of it's legal tenure and a decision needs to be made on it's future. If that wasn't tough enough Clooney finds out, in the first half hour it's no spoiler, that his wife had been having an affair and the film develops a mini-mystery aspect as he identifies the man and finds a way to confront him.

Clooney once again proves he is one of the best actors of his generation building on his recent performance in Up in the Air he is the consummate everyman star, easily slipping into roles where you can forget he's one of the most famous (and attractive) Hollywood exports. Once of the most amazing things about the performance is how subtle it is on the dramatic stretches, quiet, still everything happening behind the eyes, a lesser actor would burst through the tough scenes with his daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) or play the emotions when facing his wife's adulterous other half. At the same time he's unafraid of the comedy, the slapstick running and hedge scene are played to all they're worth.

The rest of the cast also do a fine job, Shailene Woodley as the elder daughter, conspiring with her father whilst constantly breaking boundaries has garnered the best feedback, as well as the mighty Robert Forster who came the closest to eliciting an emotional response during his wordless hospital visit. I'd also like to give a shout out to Mary Birdsong who as friend Kai has a couple of big moments with Clooney both and in and out of the hospital.

The land sale half of the plot, whilst latterly surprisingly connected to the infidelity, is a touch underdeveloped and the resolution is predictable and pat. It almost feels as if Payne was rushing that aspect of the screenplay in order to it the relevant marks for Clooney's personal growth, perhaps teasing it out a little more and allowing the final decision to feel more organic and less reactionary might have felt more natural.

As a writer Alexander Payne has always been able to dissect relateable even within extraordinary circumstances and Matt King is no exception, indeed the family unit as presented is more realistic in it's depiction than the majority of his previous characters, less obtuse than Miles and Jack from Sideways and less obsessive than the protagonists of Election or About Schmidt, they slowly seep into your subconscious, like Clooney's King you feel the turmoil of emotions when saying goodbye to the woman you love. At the same time there's a resultant lack of tension, King's reaction to the situation is how we all like to think we'd react, this safeness takes the edge off the piece.

Payne is most interesting as a writer than a director, and whilst this film is competently put together there's little of interest in terms of the filming styles, early use of voice over and Indiana Jones style flight paths aside. The pacing is good though and it's virtually unique seeing Hawaii as just a beautiful place with the same family troubles as everywhere else.

I think I can recommend the film, as gentle and predictable as it is, for being an interesting slice of life drama, although I do reserve the right to change my opinion later in the year.

*Note I am not going to reveal which mouse infested cinema I went to as they very kindly gave me a free Premier IMAX ticket to say sorry, which I'm going to save for The Dark Knight Rises in 6 months.

4 comments:

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

You LIKED it? A plague on your house.

Just kidding, because I actually like when people like movies I don't like, that way I don't feel bad for not liking (don't try to understand my weirdness.)

What did you think of Lillard and Greer? I would not have been against a film on THEIR lives.

Runs Like A Gay said...

I liked it, yes, but I didn't love it.

I thought that Lillard and Greer did a fine job in underwritten roles, so maybe a film based on them would have been interesting, however their eventual choices seemed even less dramatically interesting that Clooney et al's.

Alex in Movieland said...

If anything, I am afraid of rats and mice. especially rats. I can't even think of them... ugh.


getting back to the film: as u've read, I'm not the biggest fan, but I appreciated certain scenes.

Runs Like A Gay said...

I think this is a film that will flip to and fro in my estimation over the coming months. I can totally see why there are cries of it being over-rated, especially given how slight the story really is, but it's very likeable and relateable.

I think we can both agree it's not our favourite of the year.