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The Descendants (DVD)
Member Name: MALU
The Descendants (DVD)
Date: 07/02/12, updated on 09/02/12 (97 review reads)
Advantages: good story, George Clooney
I've always wondered why the picture of a tropical island with sandy beaches, palm trees and water all around makes so many people cry, "That's Paradise!" Furthermore, why they maintain they'd love to live there forthwith and forever. Firstly, the concept of Paradise comes from the bible which was composed in arid desert land, it's the concept of an oasis. Palm trees yes, but no beaches and no water in abundance. Secondly, what would have happened to Adam and Eve had they not been expelled from Paradise? Sooner or later they'd either have become aggressive and gone at each other's throats or they'd have died of boredom.
So, when right at the beginning of The Descendants a male voice-over grumbles about stupid people's misconceptions about Hawaii being a paradise ("As if our families are less screwed up, our cancers less fatal, out heartaches less painful . . . Paradise can go f*** itself"), I knew I'd like the film. The voice belongs to Matt King (George Clooney), a real estate lawyer in Honolulu and, together with nine cousins, the co-owner of an enormous stretch of coast on Kauai for which he's the trustee. His wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) lies comatose in hospital on life support after an accident with a speed boat. The coma is irreversible, soon the machines will be shut off following her patient's provision. The physician asks the widower-to-be to prepare himself, his family and friends for the event.
Suddenly, yes, the word is appropriate, he realises that he's got two daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). Up to then he was more 'the back-up-parent, the understudy', but now the real thing, the father, is asked for. Obviously he knew not only his daughters badly but also his wife. From Alexandra he hears, "You really don't have a clue, do you? Mom was cheating on you." His world is in tatters. Together with his daughters and Sid (Nick Krause), Alexandra's pal, he sets about finding his rival to at least have a look at him and maybe understand his wife's infidelity.
This is one thread of the story, the other one is the possible oncoming sale of the land he and his cousins own. It is to be developed into a gigantic holiday resort which will make the already rich cousins even richer. The majority of the cousins are in favour of the deal, Matt's vote is decisive for the decision if it will finally be pulled off or not.
The film is based on the debut novel of Kaui Hart Hemmings, an American writer born and raised in Hawaii. Pity that I read about her short appearance in the film only after watching it, she's Matt King's secretary and can be seen for some seconds. Director Alexander Payne wrote the screenplay together with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Hart Hemmings helped Payne get a feeling for Hawaii by travelling across the islands with him. The fictional character Matt King and his family constitute a kind of nobility (It's Matt *King*!) The land they own has been in the family since the 1860 when white settlers married into the Hawaiian royal family. In real life there is actually a Hawaiian island called Niihau that has been run by the same family since they bought it in 1863. So much for the realistic background of the story. The conflict between preserving one's heritage and amassing as much money as possible in the here and now hits Matt King at the same time as the necessity to grow into the role of a father. Gone are the days when he could get away without committing to anything or anybody.
I don't watch many films but by chance I've watched Sideways, the film Payne made before The Descendants. George Clooney applied for a role then but was dismissed, Payne didn't want to have an actor with so much star appeal. Clooney's star appeal has certainly not diminished over the seven years between the two films, but obviously Payne doesn't mind here.
The film is clearly character based, there isn't much suspense in it. In my opinion the main characters are well conceived and superbly cast. George Clooney is present in nearly every scene, what can I say about him? It's possible that there is another actor out there who could have played the role as well, but certainly not better. The emotions he shows are believable, he doesn't overact or show off his star qualities. The film isn't funny but it has its humorous moments. Clooney is responsible for some of them.
The daughters' characters are also well thought of and superbly acted out by Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley. Cuddly and sweet Scottie, fluent in obscene sexual verbal abuse, is the typical pre-pubescent monster. If you think that little girls don't behave like that, listen in to a group of 10-year-olds and your ears will fall off. Alexandra is a hurt and disturbed teen, shoved off by her parents to a boarding school on another island. Aren't there enough schools in Honolulu? When Matt and Scottie make a surprise visit, they find her not in her room where she should be at night but clandestinely on the beach with a friend, pissed and angry. She matures visibly when Matt talks to her seriously and confides in her for the first time in her life. The two friends I watched the film with and I liked her stoner pal Sid. His presence isn't really explained, he's just there and follows the King family like a faithful dachshund. We're all retired teachers, we must have met hundreds of Sids during our teaching careers. Always friendly and smooth, nothing can get to them - or so they make the world believe - and without any distance whatsoever. The scene in which Sid meets Matt King for the first time and salutes him as if he were his buddy, is ace.
I'm not so happy with the choice of the actors playing the cousins. The problem is that George Clooney is just too good-looking. Of course, cousins don't have to resemble each other, but I think the director should have looked for actors who're at least a bit like Clooney in their outward appearance. When they discuss the land deal he tells them that although they're white, they all have Hawaiian blood in them. This sounds good coming from Clooney with his dark complexion and his dark brown eyes whereas his blond paleface cousins look rather odd in this context. They are not only not handsome, some are plain ugly. *Beau* Bridges! The Latin saying 'nomen est omen' (~ The name says it all) doesn't apply to this actor. Not blessed with natural beauty like Clooney he's even made more unattractive in the film than he is in real life. Besides, Clooney looks good in short-sleeved Hawaiian shirts and even in shorts, the other male actors dressed like that look like beach bums.
A critic is of the opinion that The Descendants is a film of loss. Loss of a spouse, loss of family, loss of land. This is the view of someone for whom the glass is always half empty. I belong to the glass-half-full faction. For me the film shows growth into the past and the future. Matt King realises for the first time that he's got familial roots which go back a long time and through his children sprouts into the future so-to-speak.
Normally, I can't remember the soundtrack of a film the moment I leave the cinema. It goes in one ear and out the other. It's different with this film because my friend who's interested in music was complaining during the film about the whining sing-songs and the ukuleles. There seems to be only one tune running through the film in variations. The name of the band is Kanak Attack. I didn't find it so bad, though, the music is what tourists expect to hear on Hawaii. It serves the paradise image the whole film undermines.
Amazon already list the DVD, but a release date isn't given yet. So you have to get off your couch and watch it at the cinema. It's worth leaving your warm living-room for!
Runtime 115 minutes
Cert (UK): 15
Summary: familial problems on Hawaii