Tuesday, 31 January 2012

'The Descendants' review:

Seldom do movies live up to that most hackneyed of Hollywood promises: "you'll laugh... you'll cry". But this is one - a film that finds space for some brilliant comic performances and funny dialogue alongside scenes of some poignancy. Alexander Payne's 'The Descendants' is a film with nuance to match its boundless empathy. For instance the Hawaii-set drama begins with George Clooney's Matt King attempting to debunk myths about the Pacific island chain in a voiceover, denying its popular image as some kind of paradise untroubled by worldly concerns such as cancer and heartache. Yet in the same film Payne shows us crystal clear seas and idyllic green vistas, populated by smiling people wearing garish floral shirts, set to sunny local music.

The writer-director isn't interested in replacing one tired cliché with another. Instead he creates an honest and recognisable world characterised by darkness and light: of unbearable sadness and life-affirming tenderness in tandem, with neither ever maudlin or cloying in the least.

Though less acerbic than the director's previous films, 'The Descendants' still follows a suitably Payneian protagonist. His emotionally deficient men (from Matthew Brodrick's beleaguered high school teacher in 'Election' to the two lifelong losers of 'Sideways') always seem to be in the throes of mid-life crisis, and King is no different even if Clooney ensures he isn't so dishevelled (no matter how ill-fitting the flip flops). He may be a wealthy lawyer with a nice big house, yet his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), lies in a coma from which she will likely never awaken following a boating accident - leaving him to take sole care of two troubled daughters, Alex and Scottie (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller), for the first time in nearly a decade.

Furthermore, King soon learns that Elizabeth was having a passionate affair and on the verge of suing him for divorce, a detail known by some of their closest friends - heightening his sense of betrayal and shame. He is also in the middle of brokering a huge land sale which will make his disparate extended family - distantly descended from Hawaiian royalty - insanely rich, but for which he is ultimately responsible. There is pressure from his cousins is to sell, turning acres of pristine wilderness into a another soulless luxury holiday resort, and equally pressure from citizens not to.

Hawaii is not an incidental, colourful backdrop to this story, but a principle catalyst for events. Its pastimes claim King's wife, its islands isolate him from family members and its very soil has the power to divide or unite his family. It's in relation to this real estate dilemma, which seems peripheral for much the film, that it (like Kaui Hart Hemmings' original novel) takes its title. It's not enough that everybody in the state seems personally invested in his decision - King is also haunted by history: by black and white reminders of those who came before, forging his connection to the land in the 1860s.

The film hinges on a fine performance from Clooney whose presence in every scene gives the film a degree of subjectivity. For instance, this explains why we don't see or hear much evidence of the supposed state-wide interest in whether or not King will sell his land - it's not really something he's engaging with given the circumstances, though we feel its effect as one of many pressures bearing down on him. Clooney plays King as a man whose mind is always somewhere else, his face often implying a man haunted by dark thoughts.

Several dozen times we hear King being assured by well meaning friends and strangers that "Elizabeth is a fighter and that she'll pull through" - the emptiness of the platitude is being satirised as we soon understand the reverse, and yet there is no bitterness here: what else can you say? A late scene featuring the always-excellent Judy Greer provides perhaps the best example of how compassionately the film looks at human frailty and how our best intentions can be outstripped by the impulses of the heart.

It's as much about quirks of fate as it is coming to terms with loss or taking responsibility. Why should Clooney have inherited all this land through no work of his own and why should he decide what happens to it? Why did Elizabeth decide to jet ski on that day rather than drive the boat as planned? Why should Alex have stumbled upon her mother's indiscretion by chance? When Clooney finally confronts his wife's lover he is told that the affair "just happened". "Nothing just happens" is King's response, giving rise to perhaps the film's definitive line: "Everything just happens."

'The Descendants' is out now in the UK, rated '15' by the BBFC.

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