The Descendants


Release: Friday, December 9, 2011


How the Oscars chose a black-and-white film over this now seems absurd. Old-school film noir is a pretentiously nostalgic stance to take when approaching the 84th presentation of the Oscars. When it became clear that taking such risk would eventually merit a Best Picture, The Descendants, then, quickly and unfortunately descended into a stack of lesser (though still quality) DVDs-to-be. (It also did go on to win Best Adapted Screenplay, from the novel of the same name penned by Kaui Hart Hemmings, which was a thoughtful acknowledgement.)

“Don’t be fooled by appearances. In Hawaii some of the most powerful people look like bums and stuntmen.”

That line effloresces the casual motif presented in The Descendants. What a nourishing experience; an intelligent and humane bit of film roll doled out to us upon a serene Pacific palate. Though for all the beauty of the locale, it’d be an idea to keep a tissue handy, as well.

George Clooney stars as Matt King, a rather wealthy if not detached Honolulu resident with a large stake in his family’s land inheritance — 25,000 acres of unspoiled Kaua’i utopia. It’s a perfect backdrop to serve against such a dramatic and heartfelt story about a middle-aged man coming to terms with some of life’s more unappealing offerings. King is married and a father of two rambunctious daughters, but as Clooney eloquently states in the narrative that whisks us into the story, appearances are nothing what they seem.

King’s life is a summation of lawyering and land-holding, of biding time at the office and not so much on sunset-dappled beach walks or with his kids. That’s until the day of Elizabeth’s boating accident, where she “hit her head a bit too hard,” as Matt reassuringly tells friends and family time and again. But here’s how this movie and, though I hate to bring up the cliche, life works: nothing’s certain. In fact what’s certain is its unpredictability. We’ve got that in spades during the course of this exotic adventure of finding truth and clarity, and ultimately, forgiveness in times of such despair and tragedy.

There’s yet another link in the chain of unfortunate events when 17-year-old daughter Alex (excellently portrayed by Shailene Woodley) admits that mom’s infidelity was the source of their quarreling. Understandably enraged by the fact that he’s having to learn that his love life was not without flaw and also that his daughter has to be the filter for such information, King embarks on a journey, determined to find the man responsible for wrecking things. Inexplicably, he’s also going to give the guy a chance to say goodbye to his summer fling, for good.

Along the way virtually everything we encounter is sublime. The morning jog on the beach; the dashboard bobbling hip-shaking hoola dancer in Matt’s cousin’s jeep; the spurts of conversations peppered across the beach as per the script; even the confrontation between Matt and Brian Speer — the man with whom Elizabeth had purportedly slept with. As crucial as it is for Matt to find these things out about his wife and the life he led to this point, there’s a surprising lack of tension, given that the source of a majority of his frustration lies comatose in a hospital bed.

It seems that under the direction of one Alexander Payne, what needed to be created emotionally within this movie had already been done when John Jackson recruited the cast. Clooney is a fairly polished actor, it’s safe to say, and with as big a reputation as he’s been endowed with, the man’s suitably understated as Matt King. Combined with brilliant deliveries from precocious, young actresses like Woodley and Amara Miller (the fifteen-year old Scottie King), plus a script that doesn’t call for weighty and wasteful dialogue, The Descendants may even accomplish something a great many films cannot: matter.


4-0Recommendation: It’s very easy to get swept up by the breeze. Every character — even one you would not expect (without giving spoilers away…) — becomes endearing to us, thanks to superb acting. The setting is serene. Plus, it boasts a man who continues to age and gray handsomely. What excuse, exactly, can you conjure to miss seeing this masterpiece? (Speaking of, anyone seen Sideways…?)

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 110 mins.

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