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Ten Word or Less Review: High quality mellow drama.

There is something inherently mellowing and peaceful about Hawaii that cannot be gotten around by movie makers.  If they go to Hawaii, they will touch upon their inner zen no matter how much they try to avoid it.  The Descendants begins with a short monologue by Matt King (George Clooney) about how the illusion of Hawaii as tranquility and paradise is horse shit.  People have problems in Hawaii just as much as anywhere and Matt’s problems are plentiful.  Lying across from him as he delivers this speech is his comatose wife, Elizabeth.  Unconscious for three weeks and with hope for recovery nearly gone, he sits across from her stuck in a place of remorse and petrifying analyzation, desperately trying to keep life together.  Also weighing on him is the inevitable sale of a huge part of Hawaiian real estate left to his family for several generations.  Should he throw aside the wishes of his ancestors from the past to satisfy the material demands of irresponsible family members in the present?  Times are tough, terrible revelations are afoot, hard decisions have to be made, but there’s just something about Hawaii that makes it seem a little less traumatic, despite what we’re told.

Matt King knew everything wasn’t right before his wife went into a coma after a boating accident, but he had no idea how wrong things were.  In addition to the coma, Matt is suddenly thrust into the role of Dad for his emotionally belligerent 10 year old daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller).  He’s never dealt with Scottie on a day to day basis and is in over his head.  He brings home his 17 year old daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) to help and is greeted with hostility and resentment.  But before Matt can have a cliched encounter with his bitchy teenage daughter about her hating him, she reveals the root of her anger.  She’s mad at her mother because she knew she was cheating on Matt.  Matt and his slowly crumbling world totally explodes.  His daughter knew, even his friends knew, but he didn’t.  As his wife lies in a hospital bed slipping away, Matt starts a quest to discover who she was with behind his back and what kind of life he will be able to salvage from the wreckage at his feet.  But this is Hawaii, so it can’t be all that bad can it?

The Descendants marks the directorial return of Alexander Payne.  Payne solidified himself as a creator of characters who are quasi-pathetic with a sense of humor which is witty but always laced with the delightfully profane.  Sideways, Election and About Schmidt stand as some the best screen comedies of the last 15 years.  Then Payne pulled a Keyser Soze and disappeared.  At the height of his abilities he withdrew from movie making.  What he did in 7 years off I don’t know but it has mellowed his bitter attitude by several degrees.  Perhaps it’s just Hawaii working to soften his sharper tendencies.  The moments of bite and shock which stood out in his past works have been left behind for subtler moments of humor.  Clooney trying to run downhill in flip flops, and an obnoxious kid getting slugged is as outwardly funny as it gets.  While The Descendants claims that people’s problems on Hawaii are just as hard hitting as anywhere else, true to a point, but having pristene beaches, transcendent sunsets and an ocean surely helps one maintain their calm.  The Descendants has all the material for something hard hitting, but it mostly feels a reserved and laid back.  Since everyone is always on a beach or the camera is taking in breathtaking scenery, how can things not stay sort of okay?  This isn’t a complaint so much as it is an observation about how the environment has seeped into the nooks and crannies of the story.  Even at moments of its highest drama, Descendants feels as if it is sitting on the beach, watching a sunset with no more than a grim expression upon its brow to express its worries.

Clooneys’ King is very much the Payne protagonist, a guy running out of luck, starting to come apart at his core and looking a little pathetic in the process.  But Paynes’ typically schlubby leads, Paul Giamatti and Matthew Broderick, have been replaced with the ever dashing Clooney.  Clooney has often been compared to Cary Grant and in some regard it’s very true.  Grant could only ever be Grant, always smooth, charming and attractive and Clooney could be accused of the same at times.  He does have considerably more range as an actor than Grant ever did but like Grant, he doesn’t seem inherently suited to play a clueless everyman in over his head.  He looks too suave, too fit and projects too much intelligence to completely sell me on the idea he’s oblivious and unable to deal with the slings and arrows of misfortune.  His performance here feels misshapen at first, as if he’s caught in between a farce about death and a serious drama about the same, with Payne refusing to tell him which is going down.  This kind of tonal ambivalence doesn’t go away easily.  But as the movie moves along, eventually settling on what kind of movie it is, Clooney becomes a better fit for the role.  Matt slowly grows a spine and becomes less passive about his situation.  The Descendants hints at Matt’s burgeoning sense of outrage and anger and his confrontation with his wife’s lover (Matthew Lillard) finally brings his character around to a place we can fully appreciate and respect.

After Clooney is a line up of very able supporting cast members that Payne sometimes flirts with turning into two dimensional jokes.  Robert Forester plays Clooney’s father-in-law, an old, angry man with an Alzheimer stricken wife struggling badly with the inevitable death of his daughter.  Payne mishandles the grief here and doesn’t save the character until the end, humanizing him in a touching way.  Payne does this with a couple of Descendants inhabitants.  He flirts with making supporting players annoying jokes, only to salvage them at a crucial moment and make them more than a running gag.  Doing very well for herself is Shailene Woodley, escaping the confines of ABC Family teen soaps to show real dimension and promise.  She carries the family weight Matt cannot and encourages him to do the things he may not be able to do on his own.

The Descendants ends in a place of growth and comfort after a long emotional hardship.  Terrible things have happened among family and after turmoil has passed family comes back together, maybe not appreciative of the experience but stronger and more at ease with itself.  Making things even better is that they’ve gone through all this turmoil in Hawaii.  A land of unending scenic perfection which helps make all problems in life just a little bit easier to deal with.  Even though our storyteller would have us believe otherwise.  The Descendants has all the elements of a grim, gut wrenching family drama but it rarely feels like one and maybe that’s for the better.  But part of me firmly believes that a slightly sharper, edgier movie would exist if it had been set somewhere away from all the sandy beaches.  Maybe Illinois?

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