Academic Writing

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Descendants

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The Descendants is the latest George Clooney movie to be making Oscar noise (don't they all though?).  Coming quick off the heels of Ides of March, this vehicle is a departure from general Clooney-ness.  As seasoned movie-goers, we’ve become conditioned to expect to see him as often the charismatic and moral center of his films.  His characters always know what to say and can generally charm anyone he encounters.  Even when he’s not being the moral center (see Ides)¸he’s still in charge and knows how to handle any situation in which he’s placed.  It’s unusual seeing this side of Clooney, the clumsy, unsure of himself and a little paunchy, it’s nice to see that he’s actually a good actor and when he stretches his characters he can thrive in that setting as well. 

Set in Hawaii, Clooney is Matt King, a 4th or 5th generation Hawaiian whose wife is in a coma after suffering from a terrible head injury due to a boating accident.  While dealing with his wife’s current state and coming to terms with the fact that now he will have to take a more active role in his daughters’ lives, he also learns that his wife has been cheating on him.  To add to his stress level, in the coming days he will have to make a major decision regarding the sale of hundreds of acres of his family’s land on the island of Kauai.

Things all seem to pile on him at once, and unable to handle the pressure, this actor whose characters generally take things in stride, starts to crack.  In fact, Matt is someone who didn't take things in stride, he ignored them and brushed them under the rug, never wanting to deal with them.  In one particularly intense scene he starts screaming at his comatose wife, finally expressing the emotions he's been unable to share till this point. It's interesting to see this scene juxtaposed to the one when he says goodbye to her.  It's a cinematic treat seeing the character development of a character come full circle.  

As Matt is considering the sale of his family's land at the same time he is reconnecting to his daughters and coming to terms with his wife's ultimate demise, the relationship between the characters and the land is interesting.  While creating a sense of connection between the land that, as Matt admits, has come to him through nothing he’s actually done to deserve it.  Through learning to appreciate his family, the daughters who he fully admitted to being disconnected to, he also learns to appreciate this land, as is also a connection to his family.  As a parent he fully admits to being the "understudy," the parent who steps in only when his wife was unable.  Now he must take full responsibility for his daughters.  So too with the land he must accept responsibility for a property that was placed in his lap, a responsibility which is cannot neglect nor deny. 

The runaway stars of this film are the two young actresses who play the daughters.  Amara Miller is the precocious 10 year old who is more naïve than she wants you to believe.  The Secret Life of an American Teenager’s Shailene Woodley is the other daughter, Alexandra, the troublemaking 17 year old.  Alexandra’s drinking, swearing and general rebelliousness seems to be the cause of her dad’s abundance grey hair.  However, Alexandra becomes his confidant and the one person he learns to trust throughout this ordeal.  She is stronger and more mature than he ever appreciated and turns out to be the rock he can center this new life on.  Hers is a powerful performance and I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of her in the future.

As the first directorial effort from Alexander Payne since 2004’s Sideways, this film nonetheless has all the hallmarks of a Payne film.  Its aesthetics, dark, dry humor all point to Payne.  The film also shows a version of Hawaii rarely seen, and this seems to have been a very deliberate decision as it creates a sense of realism in an world which is so often considered anything but “real life.”  By setting this film in a place which is often expected to be idyllic and paradise-like the predicament in which the characters find themselves is made more universal and relatable.  As though to say, just because something looks great on the outside doesn’t mean to say there isn’t trouble there.  This also allows the audience to accept their situations as well.  Watching this film can be a lesson to us all that while we might think all our troubles are so dire and everyone else around us has it all figured out, that is not really the case and people are struggling just like us.  Just like Matt had to learn to appreciate his family, something he had begun to take for granted, only when something tragic occurred, so too should we learn from his mistakes and appreciate what we’ve got going on in our lives.

Relying on familiar tropes of, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” and “appreciate what you have before it’s gone,” I pretty much was able to ascertain a sense of how the film was going to end.  There are some twists and turns, but overall the film pretty much holds to your expectations of how a troubled family will ultimately band together to handle a severe trauma and come to appreciate each other like never before.  

1 comment:

Dan O. said...

Clooney and everybody else included is great but it’s really Payne who shines as the writer bringing out some funny humor but not without forgetting about the real rich moments of human drama. Good review. A good film but not as great as I was expecting.