Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Descendants (2011)

There's an exchange during one of the more gripping scenes of The Descendants, when George Clooney's character, Matt King, incredulously states, "Things just don't happen," to which he receives the unsatisfactory -- yet accurate -- response of, "Everything just happens."

In a nutshell, that is what The Descendants is about. There is no rhyme or reason to the events that transpire in our lives, but pure randomness. Why do we bother explaining or justifying the actions we undertake, when you can sum it up in three words: Everything just happens.

The Descendants represents Alexander Payne's directorial return to the big screen, filming his first major motion picture since Sideways (2004). In Sideways, Payne proved that he knew how to make a real film about real people, and with The Descendants, he manages to do it again.

The film, set in Hawaii, centers around Matt, who is the descendant in a long line of riches that was passed down to him by his great-great-great-great ancestors. In his case, the riches represent 25,000 acres of pristine, virgin Hawaiian land in which Matt is the sole trustee of. However, due to a law called the "rule against perpetuities," Matt has just seven years to decide what to do with the land. His family, consisting of a large amount of cousins, also have a stake in the land, and together, the King family has decided to finally cash it in and sell it to a prospective bidder, who plans to use the land to build a golf course, hotels, a casino, the works.

However, this is the least of Matt's worries. His wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) was recently in a speed boating accident, and is in a coma. As things get bleaker for Elizabeth, Clooney takes a shuttle with his youngest daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller) to fetch his oldest daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), who is away at boarding school.

Alexandra recently had a falling out with her mother, and it is quickly revealed that Elizabeth was cheating on Matt in the months leading up to the accident. This revelation sets the King family in a talespin. Over and over,  Matt tells friends, his daughters, and no one particular, "I don't know what I'm doing."

George Clooney has finally hit his niche in recent years, beginning with Michael Clayton (2007), followed by Up in the Air (2009), and continued with The Descendants. He excels at playing a simple, average man, who, in his middle age, finds himself at crossroad. With his affable, natural charm, no other actor plays the sympathetic figure better than Clooney does.

Shailene Woodley in The Descendants.
Shailene Woodley, meanwhile, proves herself to be a star in the making. Part rebellious (as a teenager), part-emotionally overcome (with this devastating tragedy), and part motherly (towards her younger sister,) Woodley conveys each emotion with the deepest subtlety. Overacting may be the biggest syndrome of a young actor, but Woodley plays the part coolly and skillfully.

Dysfunctional at first, the King family is forced to deal with this tragedy, and though all they desire is privacy, the big question lingers throughout Hawaii, what will Matt decide to do with the land? He notes, at one point, the irony of his inheritance, and how he did nothing to actually earn it. Just for being born, he is handed a goldmine of wealth. Again, randomness.

Although Matt, and Alexandra, and Scottie, always wish to do the right thing, there always seems to be something in the way. Whether it's spontaneity, outside influence, or raw emotion, the characters -- while meaning well -- continue to do and say things that only harm others. And that is a major theme of The Descendants: human imperfection.

Clooney, Woodley and Amara Miller. 
As the family travels to and fro, figuring out what to do with Elizabeth, and dealing with the bombshell that she had been unfaithful, Alexandra's friend Sid (Nick Krause) joins along with them, at the request of Alexandra. A boneheaded, insensitive stoner, the viewer initially gets the impression that Sid simply exists for comic relief. But, like any character in an Alexander Payne film, he indeed does serve a purpose, which eventually comes to light. Krause helps round out a terrific supporting cast, which is also aided by Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Beau Bridges and Robert Forster, among others.

The film absorbs the Hawaiian culture, with a soundtrack full of folksy melodramatic tones, where ukuleles prevail, giving you the impression that you are attending an extremely somber luau. That this problematic story line takes place in Hawaii is yet another irony that must have appealed to Payne, as Hawaii, known to the outsider as a carefree, easy-going paradise island, is supposed to be where everyone lives free and easy.

As the film progresses, the family tries to hold on, and piece together their lives in light of this tragedy. You can't not sympathize for the characters, who during this crisis, will make you laugh, will make you angry, and may even make you cry. It's a story about a family, who was given a raw deal, and is trying to make due with both the fortune and misfortune that descended upon them.

~ Review by Ddubbs

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