The Descendants (2011)
Writer/Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodly, Amara Miller, Beau Bridges.
Verdict: 5/5 (Classic!)
Great movies that are similar: Ordinary People, Sideways, A Separation.
Damn, my job is easy.
Nah, just kidding.....
My first surprise upon seeing this film was a pleasant one. This movie is rife with contradictions: the protagonists are physically beautiful but often emotionally ugly, the plot is suburban and every day, yet it feels at times like a Greek tragedy. And, then, its the setting.
Hawaii is a place of such staggering beauty, and appears to be a paradise. Hawaii's opulent, untouched acres are central to the The Descendants premise. Yet, the first thing this movie does is to annihilate any hope that this will be a feel-good beach-bum movie. Amidst the gorgeous afternoon sun, a woman suffers a fatal accident on the open surf. To quote George Clooney's Matt King: "Paradise can go fuck itself."
Yup, I don't think anybody has ever located such an effective tragedy in an upper-class paradise...
Oh, oh wait...
Okay fine, so the tragedy in paradise thing has been done. So, what has this thing got left?
Nah, just kidding again. Firstly, lets welcome back the wonderful Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways). "Payne" by name and "pain' by nature, this urban prophet has been carving suburban America a new stink-hole without fault since 1999. Much has changed in that time (from Y2K to Justin Bieber), but family hasn't.
Melodrama-a genre that gets you where you live. melodrama illuminates for us the notion that something as well meaning as love can turn into anger, resentment, and even hate when people are too close and too involved for too long (think A Streetcar Named Desire or Magnolia).
Of course, that doesn't mean that people aren't just plain crazy. here are a list of things that happen in The Descendants:
-Man screams at his wife's comatose body, accusing her of cheating on him.
-Daughter screams at mother's comatose body, tells her that she has been selfish.
-Teen girl gets drunk, wears scandalous bikinis.
-Teen laughs at senile old woman.
Yup, family can be crazy.
And, yet, there is poetry and even sweetness. This movie never felt like it forced me through the emotional gauntlet, I liked the characters and my empathy came of my own accord. Amidst his frank photographic portrait of the Hawaiian islands comes an even more Frank portrayal of character. I mean, lets not forget, this is the writer/director who let the obnoxious girl get her way in Election, the old man die alone in About Schmidt, and the cheating fiancee get away with his infidelities in Sideways.
So, Alexander Payne is a realist, and so are his characters. I concur with Red Letter Media (http://redlettermedia.com) on the notion that these characters are unusually real by movie standards. George Clooney's Matt King really just wants to get by-he's boring and non-heroic in every way. He is accepting that his relationship with his dying wife was fading anyways, totally lackluster when forcing an apology out of his foul mouthed youngest daughter, and takes the whole movie to summon up the gumption to confront his wife's lover. This man makes statements not with a cry, but with a whimper.
Then there's the dude from Jackie Brown
"I have cheese on my face"-Robert Forrester
Who hilariously beats the arrogant dimwit friend of the eldest daughter Alexandra:
This may or may not be the obnoxious boyfriend.
So, these characters are unflinchingly normal. But hey, doesn't that make their fate and resolution are the more moving? I mean, if they're real, then their ultimate hero stories are relatable to us. Towards the end of the film, Matt King (George Clooney) makes an important decision regarding the future of Hawaii. he makes the right decision for his children's generation, not because he is a hero but because he is a logical, human character. The family of the story don't work because of a perfect harmony, but rather because of a shared history and respect, their descendancy. At the risk of sounding corny (cringe), this film makes us think of paradise in a very different sort of way.
Even the obnoxious boyfriend finds his catharsis!
...but if you feel compelled to experience the work of an auteur allergic to cliche and a cast teeming with the effortless efficiency of their craft, then feel free to laugh and cry with one of the year's best family dramas.
Did I mention that this stone-cold player is in it?!