“My friends on the mainland think just because I live in Hawaii, I live in paradise. Like a permanent vacation.”
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Alexander Payne is like The Coen Brothers for me; they mutually have serious interests in observing troubled men whose miseries are either facetiousness or adversity. What makes them different is, seemingly, Payne’s predilection to stage a journey as a part of self-healing in his story. About Schmidt and Oscar-winning Sideways bears such formula beautifully; his latest Nebraska (though I haven’t watched it yet) seems like sharing the same ol’ interest. The Descendants—my favorite of all Payne’s works (so far)—is, no doubt, one of them.
Adapting the likeable novel of the same title written by Kaui Hart Hemmings about a Hawaiian lawyer, a father, and a husband—Matt King (George Clooney) who tries to cope up with his wife’s dying and reconciliate with her daughters—Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller)—is indeed a Payne’s typical. If that’s not depressing enough, you save for Matt’s dealing with his macro-family to sell their Hawaiian property or Matt’s dealing with the fact that his wife was cheating on him before she’s dying.
The script goes smooth as Clooney and his on-screen family journey along the gorgeous landscape of Hawaii; it goes so smooth that it seems to be sustainable, or too sustainable. Even though it’s beautifully captured, the plot and the characterization of The Descendants never go hand in hand; the plot goes from some moment to another moment, leaving us wondering what is the core of the story and leaving most of the characters left untouched. Only Woodley—in her first breakthrough performance—can be as bold as Clooney, who narrates the story from his POV with Woodley’s troubled girl persona (which she never gets back lately). Most characters do not have strong characterizations as Clooney’s and Woodley’s, but I can still assure you that most of the characters in The Descendants are as interesting as many pause moments in this film.
No matter how, The Descendants beautifully captures a specific bittersweet moment of a man’s life in a funny/clumsy/touching way. It never becomes too depressing or too ridiculous; every bitter moment is never too grievous; and every sweet moment never gets you more than humble joy and unobtrusive smile. The film goes in such way till it gets too tricky, leaving the audiences wonder whether it’s a comedy or a drama while it’s barely both of them. Yet, that’s what I love from Alexander Payne’s works—entangling spiderwebs into a whole meaningful pictures that keep amazed me.
The Descendant is beautiful just like the Hawaiian landscape it portrays with moments that being so alive and touching. Clooney seems to enjoy every second of his role; and Woodley manages to look well as a sarcastic teenager (long before she turns sweet (in films)). The combination of great acting, great landscape, and great storyline minus strict characterization makes The Descendants one of Alexander Payne’s greatest thing that never comes twice. Maybe it’s not his best, but it’s my favorite among his.
The Descendants (2011)
Drama, Comedy Directed by: Alexander Payne Written by: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash based on novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings Starred by: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Judy Greer Running Time: 115 mins