Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Descendants *½

Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller
Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster
Rob Huebel, Nick Krause

With his rugged handsomeness and sweet puppy eyes, George Clooney has gone from being a "movie star", in that unattainable, gold dusted sense, to becoming the perfect embodiment of the American midlife crisis. In movies like Up in the Air we are asked to suspend our disbelief and consider him not a star but a person: like the rest of us.
Clooney's likability has made this easy, if not entirely convincing and in The Descendants his charm is replaced by suntanned smugness as he plays the ruling patriarch of the Hawaiian King family. He plays Matt, an attorney who also is the sole trustee of a family legacy that owns 25,000 acres of virgin land in the island of Kaua'i.
When the film begins, and we are teased that richer, profounder themes lie ahead, we learn that Matt's family came to own this without making any effort and now, due to a law against perpetuity, they have to get either sell or lose it within the next seven years.
This plot twist suggests that we are about to find ourselves in the midst of a soul search, through which Matt would need to come to terms with his legacy in the midst of the modern world, for who can say they uphold such high values in these days?
The film then becomes something else, as Matt's wife falls in a coma, forcing him to raise his two young daughters: Alexandra (Woodley) and Scottie (Miller). Added to this, Matt begins to learn his wife kept secrets from him, including an affair.
This leaves Matt with no option but to fully become the patriarch his inheritance demands he is, but how can he do it when he's not even in control of his immediate family's life?
Clooney does his best "everyman" act but the film suffers from its imminent vapidity. Why should we care about these people when their problems seem so aristocratic?
The film even jokes when it begins that people think no one in Hawaii has issues but in all honesty can they blame us? When Alexandra learns her mother might die, she isn't in a hospital room but in a pool and when Matt decides to confront his wife's lover (Lillard) he does so through a series of real estate tricks. It's true that some movies have been able to hook and interest us in the lives of kings, queens and the extremely rich, but to try and do so, after hinting at larger themes ahead, isn't only ridiculous, it's an exercise in reverse empathy. Director Payne too, has become a specialist in chronicling the lives of men who can only be described as assholes, as they try to gain the humanity others around them seem to have. In movies like Sideways and About Schmidt, Payne's horrifying heroes have achieved salvation through the help of people around them who have more earthly values (remember Virginia Madsen in Sideways) and there would be nothing wrong if they never achieved it. After all life isn't always perfect and movies should under no circumstances be morality fables. What Payne understood so well in previous movies is that as humans we are flawed and what he does here is try to correct each of them by the time the movie is over. Not only does his practice backfire, it also makes sure we never want to see these people again.


Candice Frederick said...

ouch. i was just having a conversation with my mom about so called "universal" themes that are anything but

Dan O. said...

Clooney and everybody else included is great but it’s really Payne who shines as the writer bringing out some funny humor but not without forgetting about the real rich moments of human drama. Good review. A good film but not as great as I was expecting.

Jose Solís said...

Candice: exactly! The movie takes for granted that we all share the same values. I'm guessing this movie will be insufferable in countries where people have nothing to eat...

Dan: it was a letdown for me too.