Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Flick of The Day: The Descendants

Alexander Payne is a past master when it comes to literate semi-comic drama with a body of work that includes such soon to be classics like About Schmidt, Election and the recently reviewed Sideways. He is on familiar ground then when it comes to his latest film, a tale of mid-life crisis in suburban Hawaii starring the ever reliable George Clooney. Today's flick of the day is The Descendants.
An adaptation of a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants is the story of Matt King, played by Clooney, a Hawaiian lawyer who controls a trust which owns hundreds of millions of dollars worth of his families land. Matt is in the grips of a crisis when we meet him. His wife has recently been involved in a boating accident leaving her in a coma from which she may never wake. This leaves Matt to look after the full time job that is his two daughters, the difficult teen Alexandra and the quirky child Scottie. Added to this is the shock that his wife had been unfaithful. As if this were not enough to deal with it comes during the week in which he has to decide whether to sell his families land, the last unspoilt bit of nature on the islands. So to deal with all of this, Matt sets off with his two daughters and Alexandra's comic relief boyfriend Sid to find the man who had an affair with his wife.
Ultimately this is a sad tale of family loss and regret but it is leavened throughout by elements of comedy that really hit the mark. Payne's mordant sense of humour shone through in his previous films giving the dramatic events an endearing quality and it is the same here. Clooney excels as the man on the edge of reason, as an actor he only gets better with age. The lines on his forehead are made for the terminally puzzled Matt who seems to stumble from one event to the next while trying to do the best for his daughters. 

Matt King: You little fuck! Do you get hit a lot? 
Sid: I don't know, I've had my share. 
Matt King: [to Alex] Your friend is retarded, you know that? 
Sid: Hey I've got a brother who's retarded! You don't have to get all derogatory.

While it is a tale of loss, Payne never revels in it and asks some pertinent questions about modern Hawaii and attitudes towards it. Matt makes the point at the beginning that people from the mainland assume that because they live in paradise that the problems people face aren't as mountainous as everyone else. As Matt puts it:

Paradise? Paradise can go fuck itself.

Alexander Payne's real talent is a satirist and so often the humour in his previous films has been bitingly satiric and at the expense of his characters. The Descendants is a much less cutting affair with an emphasis on the heart and while this makes is less memorable than works like Sideways, it is no less polished.
A fine film then with much to enjoy. The scenery is epic and beautifully shot, leaving you in no doubt that this is paradise or something like it. The whole cast give strong performances not just Clooney though he does stand out. Payne delivers his usual strong script and the actors make the best of it. Modern drama of the highest order.

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