Descendants, The


Trouble in Paradise

Main Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Nick Krause

Director: Alexander Payne

I love George Clooney. Who doesn’t love George Clooney? I also love Hawaii. Who doesn’t love Hawaii? Combine the two and yeah, this is a movie I’m going to see.

The Descendants plops Clooney into beautiful Hawaii as Matt King. Matt is a lawyer as well as the inheritor of a large amount of money and the sole trustee of a huge family land trust. As he and his cousins prepare to sell the land due to legal issues, Matt’s wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is injured in a boating accident and is left comatose. Matt is left to deal with his business issues as well as his two daughters, for whom he has never been the primary caregiver. His youngest, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), is behaving badly in the wake of her mother’s accident and his eldest, 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley), has been behaving badly for years. Into the mix comes a major family secret that adds yet another layer to the burdens already facing Matt.

Two things emerge immediately as clear strengths in The Descendants – Clooney’s performance as a grieving, angry and capable yet insecure parent and the stunning Hawaiian setting. Clooney has starred in umpteen movies but I don’t ever recall him playing a role that is primarily about being a parent. His character loves but isn’t entirely comfortable with his children and their problems and perpetual bachelor Clooney makes a more than credible befuddled dad. He also handles the tricky role of grieving but angry husband with great dexterity. We’re more accustomed to him in his businessman Matt role, but he pulls them all together into sympathetic main character.

Hawaii doesn’t need any dressing up to be gorgeous, but director Alexander Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael aren’t afraid to show us a Hawaii where people actually live as well as an idealized paradise. In voice over at the beginning of the film, Matt expresses his frustration with the notion that living in Hawaii means immunity from the ugly things in life and the film supports that premise throughout. It isn’t always sunny, it isn’t always pristinely clean, but the natural beauty of the land is still there, ready to take our breath away with a sweeping vista or sparkling ocean cove.

Clooney is backed up by solid supporting performances, particularly from Shailene Woodley as daughter Alex. As the oldest child and in the absence of other close adults, she becomes an important part Matt’s support system. She knows private things about the family that he can’t discuss with others and she steps out of her bad girl persona when the chips are down. She brings with her the main source of comic relief in the film – her friend Sid (Nick Krause). Sid is a surfer/stoner/slacker with the tendency to talk too much. He becomes more than that as the film progresses but Alex’s stubborn insistence on his presence provides Matt with all sorts of opportunities for further exasperation.

The weakest part of the film for me is the score. Frankly, a little bit of traditional Hawaiian music goes a long, long way for me and it plays throughout. I found myself grinding my teeth just a little as yet another ukulele based tune jangled into the proceedings.

The Descendants has a solid plot line that isn’t too trite or worn. There are surprises along the way that complement the story of a family in crisis. There’s a lot of familiarity in the notion of a parent all the sudden needing to step up and deal with his children on his own, but the wrapping on that package is fairly unique here. As a 2012 Oscar nominee for Best Picture I’d say it’s good but not great – a solid contender in a weak year. Clooney as Best Actor is a good nomination – he’s stepping a little out of his comfort zone playing Matt and he does it very well. 4 stars out of 5 for The Descendants. This is one I wouldn’t rush out to see in the theater – the scenery is nice on the big screen but I think overall it will hold up well on DVD.

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