Review: The Descendants
|REVIEWS - MOVIES|
The Descendants is a film of nuance, dark humour and fine performances, even if it occasionally creaks under the presence of it leading star...
I approach every new Clooney film with the expectation of being well entertained. In recent times the appearance of his chiselled jaw on a film poster has become as near a guarantee of a good film as any A-Lister can provide. And that’s exactly what we get with The Descendants. It's a good film, but for my money it never goes beyond that and at times actually feels somewhat stifled by the presence of its solitary A-list presence.
Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian lawyer who discovers that wife Elizabeth, who is in a coma following a boating accident, was cheating on him and attempts to track down the man involved. While dealing with the emotional fallout of both the accident and his wife's betrayal King is also overseeing the multi-million dollar sale of the ancestral family land to a set of property developers. He is aided and abetted through the film by his two daughters; rebellious teen Alexandria, a standout turn by Shailene Woodley and an equally impressive performance from Amara Miller as younger sister Scottie. Also along for the ride is Alexandria’s hanger-on friend Sid, a brilliantly pitched comic turn by Nick Krause who provides many of the film’s funniest moments.
As the plot unfolds we are shown a main character that is disconnected from both his children and the colonial ancestors whose land he must face selling due to the rule against perpetuities. To say he goes on a personal journey of discovery becoming a better father, and more connected with his ancestors and beautiful homeland risks making the whole thing sound twee,though this is essentially what happens. The film succeeds(and dodges twee-ness) thanks to a finely nuanced script, strong performances throughout and the returning undercurrent of deeply black humour which made director Alexander Payne’s previous films (including About Schmidt and Sideways) so memorable. Moments making light of Alzheimer’s, depression, infidelity and death are all carried through with exactly the right balance of sadness and humour.
The film builds towards the confrontation with Elizabeth’s lover and the sale of the ancestral land at a meandering pace, which - far from frustrating - allows the characters and their relationships to evolve in a believable and moving manner. In particular the feisty Alexandria proves to be a refreshing take on teenage rebelliousness and the evolving relationship with her father is undoubtedly one of the Film’s strongest strands. She moves from privately schooled brat to an intelligent young woman who angrily reveals her mother’s adultery and enthusiastically supports her father’s search for the man who was ‘better than us’.
What makes the role particularly important is that, whilst displaying the determination and loyalty which characterise her father, Alexandria must also communicate the characteristics of her mother. Despite being central to the plot Elizabeth has no speaking lines and, with the exception of one fleeting shot, is only ever seen in her comatose state. Whilst her character is well outlined in the descriptions given by her husband and family it’s the flashes of these characteristics we see in her daughter which really bring her to life; gripping our attention and transforming her into a compelling figure. Shailene Woodley has already been nominated for plenty of rising star and supporting actress roles for her portrayal of Alexandria and she certainly deserves these plaudits. Personally I found hers to be a more moving and believable performance than Clooney’s.
And so we come back to Clooney’s presence which, in my opinion, isn’t always to the benefit of the film. The problem with Clooney isn’t his acting - in fact he's excellent throughout - but more that his persona dominates the film to the point that is sometimes strains against an otherwise strong narrative. His silky opening voice-over, which cloys in the first twenty minutes, is both a shining light and the killer blow...it leaves the movie feeling a little too garden-variety when compared to Clooney's smooth, A-list valour. Now this would be fine if it was easier to buy into his character, but no amount of dodgy shirts or self-deprecating humour is going to me make me buy Clooney as an emasculated, naive husband or ill-equipped parent. He’s just too damn smooth.
Moreover, having drawn comparisons with the similarly smooth Cary Grant throughout his career, Clooney is now pluming for the more downtrodden and subtly tragic mode exemplified by another Hollywood icon - James Stewart. In this film it seems that such a switch may prove to be beyond Clooney. Nonetheless, I still think his attempts to defy type casting and continue stretching himself are admirable and certainly lead to interesting films; even if, like The Descendants, they sometimes creak under the weight of his presence.
On a final note, it’s certainly a good thing to see Alexander Payne back in the director’s chair after the eight year hiatus which followed 2004’s critically acclaimed Sideways. In many ways it feels as if this should be more Payne’s movie than Clooney’s. For that reason I still can’t help but wonder where this film would have gone with a different actor in the lead role; something along the William H Macy or Sideways alumnus Paul Giamatti mould. Of course the truth is that, without Clooney, it may well never have been made and for that, we should be thankful to that striking jaw line for its continuing commitment to making quality independent films.
In The Descendants we’ve got a good film with a range of excellent performances, particularly from its three youngest cast members. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if it does go on to win plenty of awards but personally I hope that both its director and leading star will now go on to make even better films as quickly as possible - we know they’re both capable of it.
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