‘The Descendants’: A Review and I like George ClooneyPosted: December 11, 2011
First, I would like to congratulate myself on watching a putative Oscar nominated film while it is still in theaters. This rarely happens, and no, I do not take such things lightly. Now for the review:
The Descendants is a good film. It is, what I suppose you might call, classic Alexander Payne, brimming with the kind of style made famous in some of Payne’s earlier films like About Schmidt and (the more expertly done) Sideways.
A classic Alexander Payne film has a depressing male protagonist. He goes through some ordinary extraordinary circumstance. He survives it all somehow, bittersweetly, with plenty of sardonic humor along the way.
This is the crux of The Descendants. The depressing male protagonist is middle-aged Hawaiian lawyer Matt King (The Cloonmeister). His wife was in a boating accident and lies comatose in a hospital bed. His older daughter Alex (Shailene Woods) is a rebellious teenager and his younger daughter, Scottie, (Amara! Miller) acts out in the manner of an oft-neglected little girl (I legitimately wonder how this fictional character will grow up). Also King is trying to finish a major real estate deal that will affect the whole island(s?). And his wife was having an affair at the time of her injury.
So there you have the extraordinary catastrophe (comatose spouse/parent), the ordinary one: unhappy, adulterous marriage, all punctuated with moments of dark humor, courtesy of potty-mouthed Scottie and the lughead Sid (Nick Krause), Alex’s friend who inexplicably travels along with the Kings throughout their island adventures.
[beware of whiplash]
I like George Clooney. Of all the obnoxiously famous celebrities, he irritates me the least. He’s mastered the art of the nonrevealing revealing celebrity interview. He’s honest, open, and guarded. He’s managed to scrub from our collective memories those darker days of the mullet, the marriage and season 1 of Roseanne. It seems like he was born in a tux, born to live in Italian villas with leggy, anonymous beauties. His handsomeness is not enough to bimbo-fy him (Brad Pitt, anyone?) and he is a good actor.
A damn good actor in fact. Watching George Clooney in The Descendants is to watch a diminishingly handsome man grapple with the complications of middle age. The camera doesn’t hide the bags that have developed under his eyes, the lines in his forehead where there used to be smooth, titian skin. It doesn’t hide the increasing saltiness of his salt-and-pepper coif. The Hawaiian shirts he wears aren’t flattering, the boat shoes slow his jogs to undignified clomp clomps, and yet to watch Clooney is to see a man with such dignity try to keep that dignity in tact. When he says goodbye to his (spoiler!) soon-to-be dead wife, a tear runs gently down his nose. “My love, my pain.” He says. It is hard not to cry.
This is George Clooney though. And what makes his performance in The Descendants so formidable is that we do not forget that King is George Clooney. George Clooney is not trying to disappear. He is not trying to prove that he can Act. He does not Streep or Fassbender or Day-Lewis the role. He simply takes elements of himself and becomes an entirely convincing grieving father. This, from the world’s most famous bachelor.
I do have a few quibbles. Sid, Alex’s friend who tags along with the family, is an obvious plot device. He’s comic relief, in a movie that doesn’t need comic relief. At least, if the writers felt the need for (and perhaps they were right) someone to diffuse all the bundled emotions, make him a cousin or some sort of distant relative. That King would bring this kid all over Hawaii with the rest of the family, especially after the rude and frankly unbelievable things Sid says (a 17 -year- old has never heard of Alzhemier’s? Really?) is too incredulous to believe. King’s father-in-law clocking the kid in the face offered the basest sort of visceral satisfaction and also felt like a blatant attempt to lighten the collective mood of the movie.
What makes The Descendants so compelling is its acknowledgement of human screw-ups. The film, so obviously one of those films based on a novel, takes a difficult situation and makes it still more difficult by copping to the fact that these sorts of tragedies don’t always bring out the best in us. They don’t erase the uncomfortable parts of life, the strained relationships, the awful banality. The Descendants could have easily been the story of how the Kings banded together to weather a personal storm, and in one sense it is that story. But in another sense, it’s more than that. It’s about the messiness of real life. And The Descendants takes on that messiness and succeeds.