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The Descendants movie review: more Payne more gain

Director Alexander Payne, best known for high school-set political satire Election (1999) and wine-swilling on the road dramegy Sideways (2004), is filling a void in Hollywood with an unprepossessing brand of art house multiplexia: quaint, deftly handled films, indie in essence and bottled to the public with the casting of a marquee name.

Paul Giamiatti was the mildly neurotic Merlot snubber in Sideways, Jack Nicholson the rudderless, widowed retiring insurance actuary in About Schmidt (2002) and George Clooney the befuddled father, aggrieved husband and head trustee perched on a golden egg of Hawaiian real estate that could make him and his extended family fifty rich in Payne’s latest, The Descendants. The sale is impending but his mind is consumed by other matters — particularly the health of his wife, who is lying in hospital in a coma after a boating accident.

Matt King (Clooney) has two whippersnapper back-talking daughters: 17-year old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and 10-year old Scottie (Amara Miller). King was always the secondary parent, but now, forced into the primary role, he’s forced to channel his emotions and crisis-manage his daughters’ behaviour in ways he is clearly unused to.

No protagonist should look cool in an Alexander Payne film, so Clooney is daggified with gaudy Hawaiian shirts and baggy slacks to match his character’s below-waterline parental skills. Nothing, however, can hide that stardom, conceal that lens-hogging face, and Clooney’s celebrity is the only thing that breaks The Descendants’ realism, aside from the odd whiff of unusually placed comedy, like periodic brain snaps whooshed him back to the set of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) The cast are uniformly strong, with the young actors adding a crucial dynamic, forcing the film’s interpersonal relations to coil and turn.

The film’s tone is quaint but the story dramatic and the characters maintain the ability to shock and surprise. The genius of The Descendants’ screenplay, adapted by Payne and two other writers from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, is not the sensibility given to the moral ideas that it raises but its refusal to pinpoint solutions. Dealing with potentially heavy issues — sickness, infidelity, painful memories, destructive stubbornness — the lasting impact is gentle, almost pleasant, Payne seeming to find solace in the simple continuation of life itself. Payne’s style in Hollywood, like King’s beautiful, corruptible stretch of land in the pineapple state, where waters continue to fold into the sun-baked shore irrespective of the quibbles and quarrels on land, remains largely untouched by its surroundings.

The Descendants’ Australian theatrical release date: January 13, 2012.

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  • 1
    gazman
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    Saw it last night, Luke. Great film! I like Payne’s movies: nothing is black and white, everything is grey. There is no right or wrong. Rather, there is nuance, texture…layers. You can believe in the situations. George turns in a tour de force and if anyone beats him to the big prizes then I’d say they’d be lucky. The music is fantastic as well. But do they really go around in shirts like that in Hawaii?

  • 2
    Grey Fox
    Posted January 18, 2012 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    The thing that stood out for me in this wonderfully human film is the men. For me there was a second layer about how men handle feelings and emotions.
    The father of Matt’s wife who was all control and should-have-beens, the young man who was Alexandra’s buddy who was much more in touch than most and perhaps signifies a newer male, the cousins who had no feelings for the land of their forebears and were all about money, and Matt himself coming to terms with his own feelings about his country and his family.
    Descendants indeed; a more feeling and human generation.

  • 3
    Johnfromplanetearth
    Posted January 20, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Hollywood lefties at it again…puke!

  • 4
    colin@galvanisingideas.com
    Posted January 21, 2012 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    It’a an ok kind of producition. George plays George. Everyone else reads their lines well. Definitely not a major step forward in film making. Script’s OK but not special. Sure it’s an higher than average-quality feel-good film but that’s about it. George has done and will do better films but hey, if people enjoy it, that’s one of the reasons the movies exist. No point agonising. And as a business, they have to make money. I await George’s next outing. Or something like that.

  • 5
    Scheckler Ted
    Posted January 24, 2012 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    I can’t believe you gave this a ‘see it’ but TTSS ‘miss it’, ugh.

2 Trackbacks

  1. ...] from five to ten films can now be nominated for the top gong. This year there were nine. They are The Descendents, Midnight in Paris, The Tree of Life, Moneyball, War Horse, The Help, Hugo, The Artist and [...

  2. By Oscars 2012 winners and losers | Cinetology on February 27, 2012 at 6:24 pm

    ...] his fourth Oscar and his first since 1987 (Hannah and Her Sisters) and Alexander Payne’s The Descendants took Best Adapted [...

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