The Descendants

****

Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

The Descendants
"Payne's premise resembles a dare: How can I make you care for a person who looks and acts like this? He works the Disney device of love at first sight in reverse."

Alexander Payne is one of the most aesthetically daring directors in America. He doesn't shy away from ugliness, he embraces it. The shots after the opening credits show a Hawaii rarely seen on film, and George Clooney's voice-over gets rid of all doubt that The Descendants will capture us with a touristy paradise of surfboards and cocktails on the beach. We go to the hospital instead, where a woman is in a coma after a water-skiing accident.

Clooney plays her husband, Matt King, a lawyer in Honolulu, and a descendant of native Hawaiian royalty, missionaries and landowners several generations back. Every second person in the cast is listed as a cousin of his. He is the father of two strong-willed daughters he doesn't know much about, but whom he will get to know very quickly, now that his wife, their mother, is unconscious and dying. This is a Payne film and false gloom is not his thing. Over her dead(-ish) body, which becomes a macabre meeting place of sorts, all kinds of inappropriate words are spoken and family ties unravel or form anew.

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Clooney has never worn uglier pants, high-waisted, belted in the most unflattering place. Even a simple polo shirt has ugly buttons and sloping shoulders. And it isn't only the look, Payne's premise resembles a dare: How can I make you care for a person who looks and acts like this? He works the Disney device of love at first sight in reverse. No evil secret is lurking under the shiny surface. The worst comes first, and step-by-step, imperceptibly the liking begins. Inner beauty? Perhaps, but more likely a story with challenges the characters live up to. They grow, and we follow.

In his episode for Paris, Je t'aime (2006) - a collection of 18 shorts with each filmmaker assigned a different arrondissement - Payne follows Carol (Margo Martindale), a middle-aged, overweight letter carrier from Denver, Colorado on her walks through Paris. She is the poster child of the feared American tourist, her French could use a lot of phonetics lessons and she is marvelous, stealing the show from actresses such as Juliette Binoche and Ludivine Sagnier.

The Descendants goes into similar territory. Once the Hawaiian print Aloha shirt overload settles in, the real fun starts. Clooney's attractiveness is a clothed one. By ridding him of his usual armour of well fitting suits or jackets, the actor's great comic timing fuses with an unforeseen vulnerability. Clooney cries! sounds a bit like: Garbo laughs!, but it is true, you haven't seen him like this before.

The casting is impeccable. Newcomer Amara Miller plays 10-year-old Scottie, the youngest daughter, who doesn't understand how serious her mother's condition is. She snorkels, eats ice-cream with a Coca-Cola, which her father, the "understudy" or "back-up parent" allows her to do because everything about this child is alien to him. No cutesy-pie child-parent acting here, father and daughter have very little in common and it shows.

The same is true for his 17-year old daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), who comes home from boarding school and informs her father that the reason for the big fight she had with her mother before the accident, was about the mother's infidelity.

Matt King is thunderstruck and what follows is not only a family getting to know each other, and coming to terms with cutting off life-support for the brain-dead mother, the plot turns into a detective story. Matt and Alexandra try to find the mother's lover, accompanied by little Scottie who is oblivious, and Alexandra's obnoxious friend Sid who comes along for the ride, and plane, wherever the family goes. Sid, played by Nick Krause, who lays bare an absurdist teenage code of manner-less-ness manages to get punched in the nose by Alexandra's military grandfather Scott (Robert Forster exposing prejudices and past in one minute) the first time he meets him.

While this unlikely quartet stalks the adulterer all across the islands of Hawaii, Payne positions scenes like gems in a necklace: The father tells his daughter that they are cutting off life support for the mother while the daughter is swimming in the uncleaned pool and her younger sister is parading around in the older ones' underwear. The friends' house, Clooney runs to, to inquire about his wife's cheating, has a goat tied up on the front lawn.

How much the King family's big real estate deal that troubles the clan and all of Hawaii is tied to the private life of the protagonists is disclosed at a perfect pace. The beauty of the landscape very slowly takes its rightful place on the screen. "Don't let appearances deceive you", George Clooney's character warns early on, most powerful people here "look like bums and stuntmen". Even hibiscus overkill can be overcome by great story telling.

Reviewed on: 16 Oct 2011
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A father is forced to re-examine his past and embrace his future.
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Director: Alexander Payne

Writer: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash

Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Judy Greer

Year: 2011

Runtime: 117 minutes

Country: USA


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