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The Descendants

It should spoil no one's surprise to learn that Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), the wife and mother in The Descendants, is destined to die at some point in the film.  Her family is one of the groups of descendants to which the title of Alexander Payne's latest feature refers.  Elizabeth is seen conscious only briefly before the opening credits, happily buffeted by sea spray and wind as a passenger in a power boat.  Even if you haven't seen the trailer for The Descendants, there's something slightly haunting about the close-up of the contented woman as she's carried across the water.

Sure enough, as the voice-over of her husband Matt King (George Clooney) tells us as the film commences, Elizabeth was ejected from the boat, struck in the head and rendered comatose.  He's informed early on that there's no hope of recovery and must break the news to his daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) as well as family and friends.  This is somewhat new territory for the husband and father, as Clooney is made to explain the in the leaden voice-over, which wraps up mercifully early in The Descendants, once it's none-too-subtle expository dump is completed.  "I'm the back-up parent," he says.  Looking at his motionless wife and speaking of a marriage in which considerable emotional drift has occurred while he was frequently absorbed with work as a lawyer and the trusteeship of a his vast family inheritance (these the other descendants), he also declaims, "If you're doing this to get my attention, it's working."  The same could be said to Alexander Payne:  if you were hoping to make my eyes roll before the theater seat beneath me was warm, mission accomplished.

We're given indications that the two King daughters had begun to flounder even before the crisis of their mother's accident.  The younger Scottie acts out at school and insults a classmate, while the teenage Alexandra is already away at boarding school on the Big Island.  When her father shows up to collect her one evening after lights out, Alexandra is not in her room, but out at a nearby beach with a fellow giggling delinquent, feeling, as they say, no pain.    

Matt brings his daughter back to their Honolulu home to share with her the grim news about her mother.  After some morning sparring between father and alienated daughter, the backup parent finally breaks the news while Alexandra swims in the family's pool, whose collection of fallen leaves she had disdainfully noted.  What follows tells you almost everything you need to know about The Descendants.  Upon hearing the news, the young woman submerges to give vent to her breaking emotions.  This, of course, is nothing new.  It's something of a tradition, the underwater camera (or sometimes a camera poised above the water) capturing a character's wonderment, rage, or  - in perhaps the most famous example, our disaffected young friend Benjamin in The Graduate - emotionally nullifying escape from tiresome parties above.  However, the execution of this shot in The Descendants is so faultless that it trumps the lack of originality.  A good measure of the thanks goes to young Shailene Woodley, so raw and vulnerable in that  watery baring of soul.  An assist goes to famous underwater photographer Don King, who was brought in to shoot the scene.          

  Shailene Woodley as Alexandra
 in The Descendants.

Ms. Woodley's performance is certainly strong enough to merit the hype and growing number of award nominations that are coming her way.  The same can be said for her film father, George Clooney.  Working beneath a much fuller head of hair than we've seen in some time, a wavy sweep of salt and pepper, Clooney gives a typically committed performance.  If you have seen him work for many years, going back as far perhaps as his five years on the television show ER, you will observe few of the mannerisms or vocal inflections by which might normally recognize him.  As the salt in his hair has gained ground on the pepper, he's grown as an actor.  He's a movie star who commits to character, without much concern for vanity.

Mr. Clooney is more than solid as the film's center.  Just don't ask the poor man to do all the heavy lifting.  The voice-over which opens the film is reminiscent of the same work he was called upon to do in Jason Reitman's Up In The Air.  In both cases, the device hammers away, doing more harm than good.  The actor's voice was put to better and exclusive use as the vulpine narrator in Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox.      

Try running in sandals and see how cool you look.  George Clooney in  The Descendants.

As with a couple of other Payne features, About Schmidt and Sideways, The Descendants features its own bumpy odyssey.   In this case, it is Matt King heading off to the Island of Kauai to track down the real estate agent with whom his wife was having an affair.  The busy lawyer was oblivious to the infidelity before his wife's accident.  After he retrieves Alexandra from boarding school, Matt finds out the source of much of her anger is his daughter's discovery of the affair.  Once the beans are spilled to the clueless father and husband, he's sent running around the corner to friends for confirmation.  As the discomfited lawyer says, as it were, in his opening statement to us, "My friends think just because I live in Hawaii I live in paradise...Our families are just as screwed up.  Our heartaches are just as painful."  What Matt's awkward run also reveals, in choppy, almost comically-abbreviated strides, is that it's really hard to run in sandals and maintain one's dignity.  Payne seems to revel in such moments; Election, in particular, has a high squirm factor.  The director, in his predilection for these awkward passages works a fine line between a kind of candor and even compassion for our common weaknesses and fetishizing them for effect.    

Matt's journey to find the philandering real estate agent so he can confront the man and inform him of his wife's imminent death is a lonely trek only in spirit.  His girls are in tow, as is the platonic, highly dude-ish friend of Alexandra, Sid.  "I'll be a lot more civil with him around," warns Alexandra, at a point at which the father seems at a loss to reach either of his daughters.  The relationship of the elder daughter and father is one of the few strands of plot in the story written by Payne and two other screenwriters, based on the novel of Kaui Hart Hemmings, whose entire path isn't immediately apparent at first glance.  The obvious direction  would  have been to keep the parent and rebellious teen at odds, only to reunite tearfully at story's end.  Instead, Alexandra, who clearly has more issues with her mother than father, becomes a kind of co-conspirator as Matt seeks out his wife's lover.

Not only the location of vacationing real estate agents from Oahu, Kauai is also the island on which the King family inheritance stands, 25,000 acres of verdant paradise, as yet untouched by the modern world.  Unfortunately, due to something called the rule against perpetuities, the family trust over which Matt has final say, will expire in seven years, causing the land to revert to the state unless first sold.  While a couple of Matt's many cousins oppose any sale and the development which will inevitably follow, most of the family, considerably less well-to-do than their lawyer cousin, are eager to sell the land to one of two developers in the running and collect their cash.  During their time on the island, we see the family pull up in a jeep and look down upon some of the vast King family tract, including an idyllic white crescent of beach.  

The looming sense of this paradise lost does emotionally tie the inheritance storyline to that of the dying wife and mother.  But its a fairly tenuous connection.  Much as Payne and his crew demonstrate an attention and sensitivity to the Hawaiian context - the soundtrack's largely "slack-key" island tunes seem particularly well chosen - Matt's ultimate decision about the dispensation of of the family land, admirable though it might be, seems mainly a device for those of us in the audience feel better about The Descendants main character as well as ourselves.  "Even though we’re haole as shit and go to private schools and clubs and can’t even speak pidgin, let alone Hawaiian, we still carry Hawaiian blood, and we’re still tied to this land. And our children are tied to this land," he says to a few gathered cousins (one of whom is played by Beau Bridges, looking very much at home in a Hawaiian shirt and shoulder length hair).  It also seems a speech directed at potential Oscar voters and is consistent with Payne's much too tidy conclusion to all the story's strife.   

Before Matt's family unit coalesces a little too easily and is last seen sharing a blanket on the family coach, hunkered down to watch March of the Penguins, the story provides a bit of trademark Payne awkwardness.  While the family is on Kauai, Matt encounters Brian Speer (the other man) as the two pass each other jogging on a beach one morning.  Ultimately, Matt and his eldest daughter show up unannounced at the Speer's vacation bugalow.  While the clever Alexandra keeps Speer's kindly wife busy, Matt confronts his wife's lover.  To the credit of Payne and his other script writers, this scene goes in a couple of unpredictable directions, which seems consistent with the situation.  Who knows how they're going to react until they're face to face with someone who has slept with their partner?   The two men don't come to blows, much as Matt does give vent to some anger.  When he and his daughter are taking their leave of Mrs. Speer, Matt turns their fairly formal embrace into something that is perhaps the films's best expression of his chaotic swirl of emotions, forcibly kissing her on the lips.  With all the raw emotions played out in the Descendants, the kiss is perhaps its hardest moment to watch. 

The Descendants is certainly well-crafted from start to finish.  Unfortunately, you can watch the trailer and pretty well know the experience you're going to have before you ever see the film.  Contrived though it may be, The Descendants is ultimately affecting.  We see the struggling Matt King undergo the ridiculous but quite credible fit of anger in which he spews all his pent up frustration at his silent, comatose wife.  But there is the tearful goodbye as well.  When he says, "Goodbye, Elizabeth. Goodbye, my love, my friend, my pain, my joy. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye," the words don't really seem his or anybody who's not reading from a greeting card.  But Clooney, so completely in the moment, makes it work.       

Amid so much utterly disposable product crowding the multiplexes, it's hard to take The Descendants too much to task.  There's something to be said for intelligence, cultural sensitivity and craft, even when marshaled toward such a predictable result.  But as our friends in the mainstream media begin to compile their top ten lists for 2011 and The Descendants frequently gets mentioned, I can't help wondering, is this really the best we can do?  Imperfect though they may be, I'd rather devote my attention to scrappy 2011 underdogs like Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff or Evan Clodell's impressive debut, Bellflower.  Or for something more mainstream that grapples with life and death, frankly, Jonathan Levine's 50/50 seems more worthwhile than Alexander Payne's latest effort.



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