Monday, 28 November 2011

The Descendants

The Descendants stars George Clooney as Matt King, a lawyer in Hawaii whose wife is in a coma after a boating accident. Matt finds himself needing to connect in a new way to his two daughters (aged 10 and 17), his in-laws and his wife while in the midst of a huge land sale involving his cousins. He is the sole trustee of a beautiful piece of ocean-side property that has been handed down for generations and originally comes from King Kamehameha himself. The time has come to sell the land and make himself and his cousins (some of whom are poor) independently wealthy.

The land sale story provides the opportunity to make Hawaii one of the characters in the film, augmented by the prevalence of Hawaiian folk music (not that I’m a fan) and, of course, by the gorgeous Hawaiian landscape. But what makes The Descendants special are the human characters. Alexander Payne is a master of character development (as evidenced in his last two films, About Schmidt and Sideways) and The Descendants is perhaps his best effort yet. The film is full of fascinating characters and relationships, all of which centre around Matt. So we see a number of marvelous two-character scenes as Matt talks to: each of his daughters, his oldest daughter’s friend (Sid), his father-in-law, his cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), his wife, his wife’s lover, his wife’s lover’s wife, etc. The extended scene between Matt and Sid was especially precious, one of my favourites of the year (Sideways had my favourite scene of 2004).

So here we have George Clooney (you know what I think of him) in one of his best performances (Oscar nomination?), Hawaii (did I ever mention how the South Pacific has always captivated me), an intelligent complex plot full of intelligent complex characters (you also know what I think of these) and great acting, directing and cinematography. Surely The Descendants must be getting ****. Well, actually, no, it’s not. What? First you give the wonderful Hugo ***+ and now this? What’s your problem, Vic? A bad week at work? Did the Blue Bombers lose the Grey Cup game? (They did, but not until after this review was written.)

I am, of course, generally very stingy with my awarding of four stars. Yeah, I know, I gave four stars to Anonymous, but, well, that’s the point. I went away from Anonymous feeling completely satisfied. I did not feel that way after The Descendants, or after any of Payne’s films. He’s a great filmmaker and I eagerly await his future efforts, but all of his films have, for me, missed something. It’s hard to pinpoint, but the closest I can come is to say that The Descendants felt cool (not cold) and distant. And this may have been true of the other two films as well (both of them also got only ***+). So once again I am awarding a very solid ***+, though a place in my top ten is not out of the question. My mug is up.

As I walked out of the theatre, I heard the old couple behind me complain that the preview had made The Descendants look like a comedy. “This was certainly not a comedy!” the woman said. It’s true that the preview (which I saw far too many times - I knew it by heart even after all my attempts to avoid watching it) misrepresents The Descendants (nothing new there - previews frequently misrepresent films) and makes it look like a comedy. It’s also true that it’s described as a comedy. Whether it actually is a comedy is debatable. Yes, there are a number of funny scenes, though the humour is almost always subtle. But I would put The Descendants in the category of “dramas that are intentionally mislabeled as comedy dramas” - there are far too many films in this category.

1 comment:

  1. Good to read your review...I'd wanted to watch it as a holiday family event, (YA kids) but son had already seen it and actually seemed to have been hugely disappointed. He explained why this way...expectations so over-blown in previews, but there wasn't enough time at the beginning of the movie to get to know and care about this guy, who seemed to have it all (hard to sympathize with any George Clooney character...too good looking and confident...) and why the heck is everyone so angry at this poor woman? As Mennonites, we don't "get" anger real well I think...