Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Movie Review: The Descendants – Not quite ascending to greatness.


“Give your children enough so that they can do something, but not so much that they do nothing”. That is the first and last ‘movie line’ that you can expect to hear in Alexander Payne’s first feature length film in eight years. This distance from everything cinematic is immediately noticeable, as Payne tells the story of a man coming to terms with the changes in his life following his wife’s coma-inducing accident in a way clearly attempting to mimic reality instead of exhibit histrionics. The film is set in the beautiful tropical island of Hawaii, but like Clooney’s archipelago analogy, the film itself is one whole but disjointed and constantly separating.

The Descendants

One must first give credit to the film’s attributes, of which there are many. The foremost of them is Clooney himself. Long gone are the days when George Clooney suffered from the Cary Grant syndrome, of the star overpowering the actor. He inhabits the cuckolded Matt King with consummate ease, and lends strong credibility to this emotionally drifting and ineffectual man who has always done just enough to get by, and is now reaping the fruits of it. Payne uses Hawaii beautifully, taking us from island to island, and intersperses the natural beauty of the setting with the pathos of the situation, to lift the film from its natural tendency to depress. Another tool he uses to do this is humor, trying hard to add an accidental levity that often accompanies the dreariest of circumstances. At times this works wonderfully, and at times, not so much. The girls, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller, also do a very good job of playing their spoiled but innately well-meaning daughters who help Clooney glue back his fractured life.

Unfortunately, this isn’t enough to make a film an enjoyable experience. For the most part, there is just SO much happening in the movie that one might get tired of playing catch up. Payne tries to weave the screenplay so the subplots all merge seamlessly, but really they just entangle you in a mess of trying to understand his intention. Both characters and plot-points are over extended to a point where they seem to be superfluous. Judy Greer does her best in her small cameo, but her character adds nothing to the movie, except to add one more ladle in an already full bowl, and the same could be said for Nick Krause.  Finally, the ambling pace of the movie, as lazy as the Hawaiian background score, backfires on the director. Whereas in Sideways, his characters leisurely travels engrossed the viewers, in this film, it allows too many moments for disconnection. And that is potentially its biggest flaw. At the advance screening of the film, packed to capacity in anticipation, there were palpable moments when people lost interest, some even walking out, and even though there was a tepid applause at the close of the screening, the satisfaction that one hoped to derive was sorely missing. There are those that will enjoy it as a great character study, but for myself, I couldn’t help but be extremely underwhelmed.


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