Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Descendants

Alexander Payne's "The Descendants" is a well-directed yet extremely clumsy film that succeeded in rattling me mostly due to George Clooney's brilliant, moving, spellbinding performance. Previously adored to absurd degrees or dismissed as not worth taking seriously, Clooney here takes on a role much like the one he brought little life to in "Up in the Air" (the narration here brings Ryan Bingham to mind) and unreservedly digs deep into it. If only the writing had been as good as his acting (and not tremendously shaky); some sort of historic cinema wonder could have resulted. Clooney gives weight and interest to a plot that needs total audience involvement to carry it through its many turns.

Adapted by Payne et al. from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, "The Descendants" chronicles the downward spiral of native Hawaiian Matt King (Clooney) after an accident sends his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) into a coma. King knew his marriage was in trouble beforehand and thought that, following this ordeal, he could reconcile things. When he gets the notice that she isn't going to get better, he realizes he'll have to place his energy in helping his daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, also strong) and Scottie (Amara Miller) get on with life. He also is planning to tell all of the family friends about what will happen, but a terrible revelation makes things ever the more complex.

There's a subplot about selling Hawaiian land (which the wealthy King has a lot of) to make a resort or something, but to me it was far less interesting than the main, emotional strand of the film and far more expository and cluttered than it should have been. I can see why Payne was interested in it, but he doesn't do such a good job of making it captivating for the audience. He's excellent at harnessing the devastating plot points from the novel and helping the actors getting into their characters; however, some of what he takes from the book is pretty poor (the writing especially; I haven't read the book though so all of this is assumption).

"The Descendants" goes down some fascinating roads, but the journey is less mesmerizing than Clooney as the tour guide. A movie that complimented his extraordinary strength here would have been a masterpiece. B-

1 comment:

Greg said...

From her performance in this film alone, I would say to keep an eye on Shailene Woodley. She's a star in the making.

And yes, the points you make about Clooney and the references to Up in the Air were things I noticed, as well.