Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Descendants

I had been avoiding this film. Sadly it was the shortest on offer and the only one that would conclude before the plane landed. It left me feeling decidedly depressed. George Clooney stars as Matt and in common with his most recent offerings, this is another film that is more of a vehicle for Mr Clooney than any story he may be caught up in. This film is high on melodrama and serially tweaks at the heart as Matt's emotions get dragged through the mud.

This is more of a road movie where Matt is cruelly given the opportunity to shift focus from his law practice and relearn what it is to be a husband and father. As Matt makes each emotional discovery, so his body jerks into a new pose to demonstrate he has registered the emotion. The journey holds out hope that Matt will arrive somewhere new, perhaps more balanced, but he never quite makes it.

The script could be smoother. There are extended voiceovers where Matt gives the back story and telegraphs the importance of what the viewer has just seen or is just about to see. "My family is like an archipelago and they are spread all over Hawaii" Matt tells us as a map of the islands unfolds on screen.  I know we live in a messed up world, but how likely is the confluence of all these events in one person's life? Even the weather in each scene mirrors the state of Matt's emotions!

What adds to the disappointment for me are the attempts at humour that pepper the film. Rather than adding spice to alleviate the tension each attempt fizzles out like damp firework. It may be that my cultural reference points are skewed, but for me the humour didn't work at all ... and what was that running style all about?

Not only do we have a comatose mother, issues of withdrawing life-support, two unruly daughters and an adulterer with a seemingly wonderful wife and family, we also have the additional emotional pull of Matt being the centre-pin of a decision that threatens to betray the Polynesian dynasty he is a part of and whose heritage promises to make him and his cousins extremely wealthy. The film is punctuated by a series of people coming before Matt's comatose wife and telling her what they think of her/the situation. I kept expecting her to make a recovery and then hold all these people accountable - it is that kind of film. Mercifully I got it wrong.

Where the film does deliver - and by the bucket full - is through the performances of the two daughters, Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) who turn in a tour-de-force. They should have been Oscar nominated, not George Clooney! The family falling apart suddenly coheres and bad behaviour disappears without any real plot development taking place.

The conclusion of the film is ambiguous. Does Matt really act out of respect to his forebears or revenge to hurt the adulterer? A further bright flicker in an other wise dull film is Beau Bridges' contribution as one of Matt's cousins. He brings a warmth and pathos to the story that is otherwise lacking.

I was right to have tried to avoid seeing this film. Only incarceration at 38,000' made me watch it! I wish I'd being flying to Vancouver rather than Winnipeg and then I could have chosen a longer film. The performances of the girls and Bridges drag this one up to 5/10.


Shawn said...

I just saw this last night(!) and agree with some of what you say. (Woodley was terrific!)It was kind of disappointing -for all the hype it seemed to have attracted. on the other hand I liked that it was a small-scale, human, almost Chekhovian story.
The flim did get me thinking about the themes of trust or trusteeship - of the land, of children, of spouses, and life itself; and the sacrifices involved.
I was also shocked at how ugly or banal they made Hawaii look - not a paradise; just another place where stuff happens.

Duncan Strathie said...

Thanks for the comment Shawn - yes you are right. I guess I was just being lazy by not reading up on this angle. It wasn't quite the Hawaii of 'Magnum PI' or 'Hawaii Five-0' - but I guess it was a lot more like the average millionaire's playground.

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