Monday, 6 February 2012

THE DESCENDANTS (2011) - 3 1/2 STARS

"What is it that makes the women in my life destroy themselves?" 


DIRECTOR: Alexander PAYNE
STARRING: George CLOONEY, Shailene WOODLEY


Several years after his Oscar-winning success with the indie-comedy SIDEWAYS (2004), writer/director Alexander Payne returns to the big screen with another decisive though slightly predictable effort which has unsurprisingly garnered awards attention with its recent Golden Globe-winning success and multiple Oscar nominations that continue to show Payne's consistency as an all-round filmmaker. Some of the film's acclaim is down to Payne's thoughtful and heart-rendering script, sharply adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings's novel while it is also down to a heartfelt lead performance from Hollywood superstar George Clooney who is supported well by a complex, lesser known cast who all contribute to its unique story looking at family responsibility and life's disappointments in the beautiful Hawaiian surroundings....

In Hawaii, land baron Matt King (Clooney) is left distraught when his wife Elizabeth ends up in a coma following a boating accident which leaves him to look after his two rebellious daughters; youngster Scottie (Amara Miller) and teenager Alexandra (Woodley). But while dealing with his wife's predicament and caring for his girls, Matt also faces responsibility with having to sell part of his family's treasured land which faces being turned into a luxury tourist attraction though it is clear that his other problems make him unsure of what he wants. However his family situation takes a nasty turn when following the news that Elizabeth faces certain death, his eldest daughter Alex reveals a terrible truth about her mother cheating on him with another man which leads to Matt deciding to confront this man. Accompanied by Scottie, Alex and her male companion Sid (Nick Krause), the group travel to the island of Kauai where the man is currently staying and as Matt seeks the truth about the infidelity, he also starts bonding with his girls which allows him to reflect on his duty as a parent and as a loyal family member with his ancestor's heritage to stay dedicated to....

What Payne manages to put across with The Descendants is his faithfulness to familiar territory with some of his characters and stories. Themes of infidelity and loss which were seen with his earlier films like Election and Sideways add to the complicated emotions delivered on screen particularly for our leading character and those around him. Payne also excels in his writing when it comes to drama and comedy as most of his characters are given the humane focus of being initially dislikeable but proceeding to re-evaluate themselves and be redemptive by the end e.g. Alex who starts off as rebellious and bitter yet over the course of the film matures as a daughter supporting her father. But the core of the story apart from its writing is the acting and most of that is down to Clooney's terrific performance in which he conveys various emotions depicting his role as a man struggling to overcome the problems in his life whether he be vulnerable, strong, anguished or angry. It is all expressed in great detail by Clooney as Matt deals with all these conflicted feelings through careful precision and should make this year's Best Actor Oscar race more tough to call. Newcomer Woodley (disappointingly snubbed in Supporting Actress) is just as good in the role of Alex, capturing the anger and hurt of a teenager betrayed by her mother and abandoned by her father though their relationship does develop into a more reliable and supportive bond as the film progresses. The other child star Miller links up the solid family unit with naivety and innocence as Scottie working well with Clooney and Woodley throughout their scenes which make them stand out as a believable on-screen family whether they be trading insults at each other or sharing emotional moments together. The collection of small and effective performances lend extra baggage to the story with Matthew Lillard looking a far-cry from his early, goofier roles as the unfaithful married man who sleeps with Elizabeth while others like Robert Forster, Judy Greer and the underrated Krause bring more to the complexity of the film's characters. Finally deserving of some mention is the setting of Hawaii which presents itself on screen with such rich, tropical nostalgia accompanied by a flowing musical score but as Matt points out in the opening monologue, the film shows an opposite view of the way many people associate the island as being a natural paradise when in fact it is just like anywhere else.

Though this is an endearing film with a lot of brilliant characters and dramedy, the narrative does become a little predicable from the outset and the word 'cliche' continues to appear here. Firstly It is best to warn people who watched the trailer that it isn't a comedy despite some of its wacky one-liners, it mostly plays like a soap opera at times with a lot of drama and some light-hearted moments. Secondly the film's title doesn't really have much influence on the whole story in which Matt's ancestry is only mentioned in parts during his land sub-plot and that particular storyline didn't captivate me as much while the search for the cheating man has enough build-up to make it confrontational yet instead it all ends up a little flat with what you'd want to see happen which doesn't. And finally like most films I've seen in the past year, the film just ends too quickly, too many times this year has that happened.

VERDICT: A pleasant though predictablish film which is handled admirably by Payne with Clooney (and the rest of the impressive ensemble) on top of their game, it works well for its characters thanks to the witty script and places itself in beautiful surroundings.

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