Sunday, December 4, 2011

"Aloha" Also Means Goodbye - "The Descendants" Review

When I look back at my childhood I find it incredibly difficult to identify any moments of true confusion, fear, or despair. It wasn’t because these forces weren’t present in my life at the time; childhood is characterized by dark moments of discovery and mistakes. A lot of my general positivity and childlike joy may have come from my general lack of understanding or imperceptions of the difficulties of life that become so clear during adulthood. However, I would place the majority of my feelings of safety firmly in the hands of my watchful and ever-present parents.

I can clearly remember clutching my parents’ hands while wandering through the local mall. The very nature of doing so firmly established my relationship as their child, seeking safety and a measure of avoidance from the adult world that approached from the fringe of our connection.

As we age, our relationship to this kind of guidance and security changes. The outstretched hand of our parents becomes an icy grip of control during our teenage years as we grow into adulthood. The shunning of this sense of safety and control signals our maturity and embrace of the difficulties that adulthood has for us.

What does this have to do with the newest film from director Alexander Payne, The Descendants? At a cursory glance, maybe not a lot. However, I would argue that Payne’s seeming lack of understanding of this relationship is at the core of the reason that The Descendants is a failure.

Like most Alexander Payne movies (Sideways, About Schmidt, Election) a great deal of the story of The Descendants is told through voiceover. Typically, Payne allows his voiceover to stand as a unique perspective on the events in the movie. It allows us to understand the mindset of the character in a unique and refreshing way; About Schmidt’s use of letter-reading voiceover demonstrated a sharp contrast between how Schmidt was in reality and how he presented himself in his letters.

At one point, Matt King (George Clooney), the protagonist of The Descendants, makes this observation through his voice-over: “Somehow it feels natural to find a daughter of mine on a different island. My family seems exactly like an archipelago – all part of the same geographic expression but still islands – separate and alone, always drifting slowly apart.”

This quote characterizes most of the storytelling in The Descendants. The idea of a family separated by geography as a metaphor for their emotional distance is an interesting, if not tired, idea. The problem is that Payne feels as if he has to hold our hands and guide us through all of the beats of the story by having voice-over describe every aspect of the film and its characters. He has essentially tried to reduce his audience to the emotional level of children who without his guidance might be left adrift in the world of adults.

However, The Descendants is a movie about adult problems. By telling the story this way, Payne has created what is the most sterile and safe version of emotional catharsis believable and one that ultimately rings as untrue.

This is generally upsetting for me, as a huge fan of Payne’s previous work, as I found myself trying so incredibly hard to invest myself emotionally with the story in The Descendants. Payne is typically fantastic at identifying characters that are generally unlikeable and by the end of the movie finding a reason to redeem them and allow his audience to care for these people.

The Descendants follows Matt King, a distant relative to the former rulers of the Hawaiian island, who has to make a decision on what he is going to do with his family’s 35,000 acres of virgin Hawaiian land. The film starts with his wife suffering a traumatic injury while waterskiing. As a result of her carelessness she slips into a coma from which Matt learns she will never wake.

This news draws Matt’s estranged family, two daughters, to his side for the first time in a long while. As if dealing with his angry 17-year-old daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and impressionable 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) wasn’t enough, Matt is quickly informed by Alexandra that his wife was involved in an affair. So the family sets out on a road-trip of sorts to discover the identity of Matt’s wife’s lover, inform her family of her pending demise, and reconnect as a family.

The Descendants’s story falls right into a well-worn territory for Payne and can be quite powerful at times. The script really picks up its pace and tension when Matt attempts to confront the man that has been having an affair with his wife. However, just as with the voice-over, the script then proceeds to fall back into some terribly expository dialogue that causes the scene to completely deflate.

This is the case across the board with The Descendants. Its not bad enough that Payne needs to hold our hand through the entire piece, telegraphing all the emotional beats, but he must think that he is really clever for doing so. Although, Payne must have realized that all the voice-over was completely unnecessary at some point because it disappears about halfway through the film.

There are a few things that stand out about The Descendants that would make the film worth a second look: the location and George Clooney. First off, the setting of Hawaii is a unique one that informs a lot of the decisions in the film, from pacing to musical selection. The cinematography, while never truly interesting, never sensationalizes Hawaii beyond its natural beauty. However, the soundtrack tends to go a bit overboard at times, never really allowing for silence or ambience to fill in what should have been more thoughtful gaps. Hawaii’s greatest presence is in the carefree pacing of the film, which feels languid at best and at worst, the middle of the film, like a slog.

George Clooney is an interesting actor to find as the central character of an Alexander Payne film. Payne typically likes to center his films on characters who wouldn’t seem conventionally attractive or likeable. Clooney is instantly both attractive and likeable in his role as Matt. He does a solid job with the material he is given, but in the end it feels like a role he could do without a second thought. That naturalism is what makes Clooney such a star, so it is a good thing that the film can rest easily on his talents.

Despite Clooney’s performance, the choice of making Matt so instantly likeable is a questionable one. The film tells us that Matt hasn’t had time for his family and has driven them away, but it never gives us any reason to believe this to be true. When his wife ends up in a coma it seems that all he has is time. It doesn’t feel like Matt has much of a reason to be in the situation he is in. This realization could have been an interesting character moment for Matt, but it is never addressed and thus decreases the ability for Matt to truly grow throughout the film. Instead, he is forced almost by the mere idea that he is in a film to grow and make a decision on what to do with his land.

The Descendants is a confusing film to dissect, especially coming from director Alexander Payne. There are so many elements of it that are near perfection that are almost completely ruined by what seems to be Payne’s lack of confidence in his audience. What he doesn’t realize is that we are all adults, capable of own on discovery and embrace of life’s tough decisions, that don’t need to have our hands held and guided through a rather simple story.

2 / 4 Reels



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