Writer: Elaine EweWriter Ratings:Overall: Cast: Plot: Effects:
NACinematography: Watch this if you liked:
“Election” and “Sideways”
There is something very disturbing about a tragedy befalling a family, of course, other than the fact that a tragedy just befell a family. This statement is made in reference to films that depict families whose whole lives unravel after a tragedy befalls them, where secrets are made known and feelings are confronted, and the latest in this series of families' torn-apart-then-coming-together-in-times-of-tragedy is Alexander Payne's Golden Globe winner and Oscar-nominated feature, "The Descendants".
George Clooney stars as Matt King, a man whose life is in meltdown after his wife Elizabeth, sustained a head injury while water-skiing, and with no signs that she will wake from her coma, Matt is left to pick up the pieces. And boy is he unhappy about it, with his disenchanted tirade, "My friends think that just because we live in Hawaii we live in paradise... Paradise can go fuck itself".
The movie is very much a character study as opposed to a moving drama about discovering one's calling in life, and then changing to reflect this epiphany. There is no rush to move from one plot thread to another. It is just a witty and heartfelt study of how people deal with the tragedy that occurs in their lives. If anything, the movie's only plot flaw is the subplot which involves finding Matt's rival, a vapid realtor called Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) which dragged on a tad too long. The reason for the ostensibly felt drag is the lack of character given to Elizabeth, Matt's wife, who is known only by how Matt, his daughters, her relatives and friends treat her, thus, it seems hard to care about anything that involves her.
Clooney gives one of the finest performances of his career in playing Matt King, a land baron who has no idea how to be dad. He flits seamlessly between being shocked, outraged, irritated and sad, between being a man who is trying to do the right thing and being a human, flawed and contrived. The scene that best reflects this is during his visit to his wife with his daughters, where he first enters the room by himself to scream and shout profanities at the comatose woman before calling his children in, after which he berates his eldest, 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), for being unforgiving of her mother.
That being said, Clooney's masterful play between being subtle and dramatic is not the only one that goes noticed. As Alexandra, Shailene Woodley manages to hold her own against the veteran; initially just another bratty, resentful teenager, but she soon matures to the point where she acts as a supportive parent to her own bewildered dad. Meanwhile, Amara Miller plays 10-year-old Scotty, who does as a 10-year-old might do, such as copying her sister and wanting to be accepted by her friends. It is these little details that make the characters and their story feel very real and relatable, despite the artificial premise that it is crafted on.
Cinematography-wise, Payne has always been skilled at muddying together emotions by undercutting tragedy with flashes of comedy or farce. The humour may not be laugh out loud funny, but there is something sophisticated and honest to it, such as the scene when Matt discovers his wife's infidelity, following which he proceeds to dash to his friends' house with the hopes of uncovering more details. However, in his impulsive action, he has forgotten to put on more appropriate running shoes, so his passion-fuelled becomes a half gallop, half sauntering run which diminishes his dignity as fast as sweat stains his clothes.
Humour is also injected through Alex's sort-of-boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), who looks like a stoner for the whole of the movie and whom she insists on accompanying her on all the most fraught family occasions. It also seems that he is devoid of tact, after he fails to suppress his laughter upon hearing Alex's grandmother's remarks, made on account of her dementia, and would have ended up being an annoyance in the movie but as any accomplished director would, Payne does not let this be, and a late reveal that this apparent goofball is not quite as insensitive or idiotic as he seems. The scene may have quite easily be labelled as contrived, had it not been done subtly, which appears to be the key theme of "The Descendants".
Of course, the various shots of Hawaii should also be commended. Contrary to Matt's opinions on Hawaii, Payne does not shy away from showing us the islands' overwhelming beauty. Payne even goes a step further by incorporating the soundtrack from Hawaii, which lends an indie vibe to the movie, as the country probably has a record for producing the world's crass music. But it does not feel jarring because of the irony it presents when juxtaposed with this portrait of a family in crisis, cheerful, yet chaotic, such as how the islands presents themselves to be metaphor as well.
The verdict? "The Descendants" is not the movie that everyone is looking for, but it is definitely the movie that everyone needs. It is a simple, yet exhilarating and wholly satisfying exercise in the contradictions and complexities of human emotions. "The Descendants" occasionally threatens to slip off-track, but is anchored by some of the strongest performances Hollywood has ever seen, down to the smallest role.
"The Descendants" is also available in 2D.Cinema Online, 22 February 2012