10 February 2012

Alexander Payne’s ‘The Descendants’

George Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian lawyer who is responsible for his family’s valuable land inheritance - hence the film's title. His wife has suffered a water skiing accident and is in a terminal condition on life support. Matt and his two daughters, Alexandra and Scottie, have to cope with this tragedy. Also, Alexandra tells Matt that her mother had been having an affair. He has to come to terms with this, rebuild neglected relationships with his daughters and complete the land deal.  The Descendants is based on a first novel of the same name by a Hawaiian writer, Kaui Hart Hemmings (she appears in the film briefly as King's secretary).

Payne’s Sideways (2004), filmed in the photogenic Californian vineyards, didn’t make me want to drink pinot noir, and The Descendants would not induce me to go to Hawaii. One of the underlying themes is that even if something looks like paradise, life there can be as harsh as anywhere else. Moreover, much of this a paradise long lost to rampant development.

Alexandra, very well-acted by Shailene Woodley, undergoes too rapid a transition to be credible from teenage tearaway to maturity after being brought back from Napoleonic exile at boarding school on another island. Also unlikely is Matt’s acceptance of Alexandra’s non-negotiable boyfriend, Sid. His presence is invaluable, though, to the mechanics of splitting up the father daughter trio essential for some of the scenes to work.

In fact, all the acting was good. Clooney has an Oscar nomination and seems to be the type of superstar who can bring out the best in other actors. Indeed his acting skills and personal attractiveness probably make one overlook some of the film’s weaknesses. For example, too much voice-over (by Clooney) as a consequence of avoiding flashbacks, too much Hawaiian music and some dodgy editing – what was the grave (bottom left when they approach the inheritance on Kauaʻi) going to be about? The film, to my eyes, doesn’t really merit a nomination; Clooney’s own Ides of March is better, certainly better shot.

Before seeing this film, it might help those of us ignorant of US geography and history to look at Wikipedia’s entries for Hawaii and the Hawaiian Islands.  I never knew the Hawaiian state flag incorporated the UK’s Union Flag, or that Captain Cook called them the Sandwich Islands.  The film provides maps to assist. 

Anticipointment Index – the publicity has been rather flattering, so not a good mark at 3 (out of 5, the lower the better).

No comments:

Post a Comment