Friday, December 23, 2011

The Descendants (2011)

The Descendants (2011)
Dir. Alexander Payne

3 out of 5

Far from an exotic paradise where people come to while away the hours in a sleepy idyll, the Hawaii portrayed in The Descendants is a thoroughly modern place, full of anxiety about family, money, and the Way We Live Now. It's not much more than a picturesque place for the American dream to die. Not that busy lawyer George Clooney is in any danger of losing the farm. He does, however, have a million headaches as the sole trustee for a old missionary family's massive tract of virgin beachfront property and the sole parent to a wayward teenage daughter (Shailene Woodley) and a younger one (Amara Miller) who might be headed down the same path. A virtual widower due to a boating accident that has left his wife in a coma, Clooney stumbles upon an unexpected connection between financial and familial crises: his dear spouse was sleeping with the real estate agent who's poised to negotiate the sale of his family's land. "Fuck paradise," he asserts in the copious narrated exposition that begins the film. It's difficult to disagree with him.

A ramshackle plot like this needs a solid anchor, and it has an excellent one in Clooney. His performance is subtly magnificent, conveying the quiet impotence of a successful striver who can't fathom why everyone else has such trouble keeping up. It's a slightly darker spin on the his character from Up In the Air, where he played a cocksure man who is just learning what it truly means to fail. The Descendants throws even more slings and arrows his way, triggering a simmering rage that manifests itself in frequent verbal confrontation. This is an Alexander Payne film, after all - violence delineates the uncouth and the stupid from the heroic. It's telling that the only hand raised in anger belongs to Clooney's exaggerated bully of a father-in-law (Robert Forster) and comes down upon Woodley's beatific moron of a friend (Nick Krause).

While strong at its center, The Descendants struggles to provide its protagonist with worthy accoutrements. The dialogue is often clunky, particularly that of the younger characters, and the pacing gets tiresome as Clooney bounces from emergency to emergency like a schizophrenic superhero. Beau Bridges has a nice little turn as one of the cousins pressuring Clooney to ignore his moral misgivings and sell the family's land, but the rest of the characterizations are often too weak and set up a clumsy dichotomy between the competent Clooney and the selfish sharks that surround him. That's a shame, because The Descendants ultimately has an affecting message about the immutable bonds of family. It would just be better if it wasn't such a one-man show.

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