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The Descendants

February 3, 2012

The Descendants (2011)
Director: Alexander Payne
Actors: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller

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Synopsis: Hawaiian lawyer, Matt King (George Clooney), is having a bad week. His cheating wife is in a coma after a watersports accident, his two teenage daughters are playing up, and he has a big decision to make about an unspoilt plot of Hawaiian land over which he is the executive trustee.

Review: Alexander Payne – the master cinematic satirist of Middle America, who has carved a brilliant body of work over the last decade with Election, About Schmidt and Sideways – returns with a film which, on paper, promises to be a continuation of the tragicomic themes he mined in those earlier works. There is the unusual and ‘ironic’ use of setting (Hawaii), there is the comic potential of George Clooney cast as the put-upon father, husband and lawyer, and there is the rich, high-concept set-up of Clooney’s wife being on life-support in hospital, while simultaneously Clooney and his daughters embark on a mission to expose her secret lover.

Alas, where Payne previously exercised a much more detached eye over his characters, in The Descendants he seems to have substituted that scepticism for a huge quota of sentiment and schmaltz which, though undoubtedly appealing to a mainstream audience, seems a fundamental misstep to me. One of Payne’s errors is an over-reliance on grief or bereavement as a means to engender easy pathos or sympathy in the narrative. Fair enough if he wants to have the big plot hook of the mother on a life-support machine, but this element is flogged to death (if you’ll pardon the pun) over numerous sequences, and even the dopey Sid – the teenager who accompanies Clooney’s family on their secret mission – has a phoney monologue where he conveniently reveals how he recently lost his father in a drink-drive accident.

Even the use of Hawaii as a location is not without its faults. Sure, it’s an interesting notion to see the real, bland, everyday Hawaii, away from its exotic connotations, but that ‘irony’ comes across quite clearly in the narrative, and doesn’t really need Clooney’s overly-expository opening voicover to spell it out. Even the subplot about Clooney being sole trustee of a family plot of Hawaiian wilderness (which would just happen to be up for sale to property developers in the same week that his wife is in a coma) feels a little forced and excessive a plot development. I’m assuming Payne included it to amp up the film’s intellectual IQ – borrowing a similar personal/historical dynamic from the films of John Sayle (Lone Star, Sunshine State, Silver City), although it comes across as inorganic – designed to give Clooney’s character a dash of nobility, that perhaps he doesn’t deserve. (February 2012)

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