Wednesday, 28 December 2011


20th Century Fox Films
Now Showing

To paraphrase Matt King's opening narration of The Descendants, "Just because I live in paradise, doesn't mean everything is perfect". Matt (George Clooney), well-to-do lawyer and family man, may indeed live in Hawaii, but he's about to have one of the worst weeks of his life.

Matt's wife is in a coma following a waterskiing accident, and his rebellious teenage daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), not only refuses to play nice when she's brought home from private school to help out with her younger sister, Scottie (Amara Miller), but drops a bombshell about her mother.

And then there's the land deal involving a vast tract of Hawaiian real estate, passed down from generation to generation following Matt's great-great grandfather's marriage to a native princess. Potentially worth hundreds of millions to his extended family, Matt can't decide if he wants to sell it off, to be torn up and redeveloped as another island resort with a golf course, or hold on to it out of some sense of familial honour and a little bit of pride.

Whether you consider The Descendants as a drama with comedic elements or a comedy with dramatic moments, it is unmistakably the work of director Alexander Payne. Making his first film since the critically acclaimed Sideways (2004), Payne, working from a screenplay co-written with Nat Faxon and Jim Rush, and adapted from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, once again displays his knack for mining the laughs from pain and vice versa.

And Payne is assisted greatly in the casting of George Clooney. Even without the facial hair and extra pounds he sported for his Oscar-winning turn in Syriana (2005), Clooney's Matt King is the closest to a schlub he's ever played. Matt might be a lawyer and wealthy land owner but he's several degrees removed from Clooney's more polished roles in Up In The Air (2009) and the Ocean's trilogy.

The events of the week as they unfold in The Descendants prove how little this man knows about everything that constitutes his life, and Clooney walks the fine line between comedy and drama as Matt King slowly unravels, never playing either extreme for effect (although one final scene seems like a misjudged attempt at tear-wringing - or Oscar votes).

Good, too, are the support cast. Shailene Woodley perfectly captures the spitefulness of the rebellious teen, not about to give her parents a break even with one on their death bed, and young Amara Miller provides innocent and inappropriate laughs.

Nick Krause as Sid, Alexandra's borderline Neanderthal boyfriend, will either amuse or annoy, much as he does all those he meets in the film, but Robert Forster may break your heart as Matt's disapproving father-in-law, hitting out, figuratively and literally, in defense of, and grief for, his daughter.

The Descendants has been winning plenty of plaudits in the current Hollywood awards season, and is one of the favourites for the Oscars. It's a perfectly fine comic-drama which many people will find quite emotional. I didn't.

That failure to be moved - along with the seemingly unnecessary land sale sub plot - are perhaps the two major reasons why I liked but did not love The Descendants. It's no masterpiece, and it certainly doesn't surpass Sideways as Alexander Payne's best work.

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