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Movies about the problems of financially "comfortable" folk have always been a problem for me. Liberal icon and solid citizen George Clooney took a misstep, I feel, with his 2009 Up In the Air, a comedy-drama that asked us to consider the plight of downsized Americans through the filter of a man whose career specialty is firing people for faceless corporations. It's like what the father says in Martin Ritt's Hud: although the guy whose job it is to destroy sick cattle has "just got a cruddy job" and isn't particularly deserving of sympathy either. It's sort of like framing a movie about concentration camp victims, by sympathizing with the moral and romantic life of one of the guards.
The entertaining Alexander Payne film The Descendants is about the problems of a well-off Hawaiian attorney who manages the enormous wealth of his extended family. The surprise is that this show erases the class distinctions between those that struggle and those that are wealthy by means of inheritance. Clooney's paterfamilias is a responsible guy who wants to do the right thing. His relatives are counting on an unearned windfall that will alter their lifestyles, but also erase their heritage. Adapted from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants is a funny and touching family drama that touches upon a number of interesting issues. That fact that it takes place in Hawaii and that people wear colorful shirts doesn't mean that life is an endless romp in paradise -- although many of us would jump at the chance to live there.
Matt King is forced to take time from his law practice to deal with a number of serious personal issues, including a family that he knows he's been guilty of neglecting. His beautiful wife lies in a coma in the hospital, after a water sports accident. Her outlook is not good. Matt wants to reconnect with his two girls but finds his teenaged daughter Alexandra (Shallene Woodley) drunk and disorderly at her boarding school. Alex's verbal abuse and accusations hurt Matt, but he absorbs them. Matt realizes that his wife had been neglecting his daughters as well. Young Scottie (Amara Miller) uses obscene language, for instance. Matt must also put up with the ire of his wife's father, Scott Thorson (Robert Forster), who naturally blames everything on Matt. And finally, Alex's slacker friend Sid (Nick Krause) is always around, and forever coming up with painfully awkward remarks that drive Matt up the wall. The kicker arrives when Alex finally reveals that his wife had been cheating on him for quite a while. Once Matt recovers from the shock, he embarks on a bizarre family project: to find out the identity of the mystery lover.
Always nagging Matt's is a tough decision. He's the executor of the family estate, which owns many of the most valuable undeveloped acres in Hawaii -- one of the few plots of land left in their natural state. The dozens of extended King family members have inherited this gold mine, that has been passed down through the generations. The present plan is to sell it all for a vast sum of money. Matt works hard and lives off his personal income but many in his clan (like Cousin Hugh, played by Beau Bridges) have been bumming around all their lives, waiting for the big payoff. Matt knows that the Kings are distrusted by most native Hawaiians and personally wants to keep the land intact. But the pressure is on to sell out, big time.
In the long version of George Roy Hill's adaptation of James A. Michener's Hawaii, it is established that the first white Protestant ministers in Hawaii in the 1820s became large private landowners due their early arrival and special relationship with the descendants of King Kamehameha. Like them, the King family intermarried with the native Hawaiians; 190 years later they're still in possession of their amazing inheritance. The Descendants keeps this conflict in the background at all times. What is the point of a legacy if the people involved want to sell to the highest bidder? Cousin Hugh tries to convince Matt by saying they didn't take the highest bid, but an offer from developers that will use "taste and discretion." Only proper private stewardship can preserve the land.
Alexander Payne has a gift for staging confrontations and developing character relationships without resorting to tricks, schtick, easy punch lines or snide repartee. Matt must deal with an emotionally debilitating situation, and help his daughters understand its full meaning. They also need to re-form as a working family unit. This happens all the time in wretched family dramas, where dad claps his hands together and everyone bonds over flatulence jokes. Payne and Clooney show some of the real work and patience that go into the effort. Matt King spends a lot of time NOT saying what's on his mind, often stretching his patience to the limit for just the hope of establishing some harmony.
Oddly, the sleuthing project to find his wife's lover is just the ticket. Alexandra becomes a major ally. The big surprise arrives when the target turns out to be somebody connected to the big land sale. Matt wants to be fair to everyone, but there are limits. He also feels very strange when he strikes up a conversation with his wife's lover's wife ... not knowing exactly what he wants to do. Why blow up another family? But a confrontation with the Other Man seems absolutely necessary. All of these scenes are priceless -- not smart-smart clever, but undeniably funny. The Descendants is fully satisfying as a drama and as a comedy.
George Clooney is a solid leading man in all respects, especially when it comes to portraying a mature guy communicating with his daughters for the first time. He looks plenty silly when he runs through the neighborhood to confront friends with the fact that they knew all about his wife's activities and never told him. But he keeps his dignity intact even when he can't control his anger. His father in law, Sid, and his cousin would try anybody's patience. Seeing Matt King trying to be sane and rational under these provocations gives us a role model, not a clown.
Shallene Woodley and Amara Miller are nicely chosen to play the daughters, accurately sketching the laid-back attitude of privilege. Yet they're good kids, not parodies. Matt may not have been around much and his wife may have been unwise in her loneliness, but she was obviously doing something right. The movie creates a warm feeling about people, something increasingly rare in today's film-going experiences. 1
20th Fox's Blu-ray of The Descendants is a stunner helped in no small terms by the beautiful Hawaiian locales that drift by as the story plays out. The soundtrack is composed of Hawaiian music as well, reminding us of the heritage that Matt King is allowing to slip away.
Fox has assembled an interesting set of extras, including HD featurettes on the making of the film that spend time with the personable director and his devoted crew. They're listed below. The deleted-scenes extra offers only two or three snippets ... perhaps the picture was so tight as shot that little needed to be cut from it. The most interesting featurette delves into the back-story of a Hawaiian landowning family with a back-story much like that of the fictional Kings. We see their property, view photos of their ancestors and are shown how they manage to pay what must be some killer property taxes -- or does their early settler status exempt them from such concerns? I've lived in Hawaii for three years as a military dependent and visited as a Haoule tourist -- and all I can say is that 50% of Oahu seems to be a military reservation of one kind or another.
The second DVD disc carries the picture in standard def plus a digital copy. Fox's outer sleeve doesn't allow buyers to see the little tech spec charts describing the disc format, etc. Languages are present in English, Spanish and French, and subs in English and Spanish. Amazon's listing is incorrect, in that the package only contains two discs, not three.
I agree heartily with Fox's cover blurb for The Descendants. It is probably the best all-round film nominated by the Academy last year, and is highly recommended. Blu-ray is an excellent way to soak up its graces.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Descendants Blu-ray rates:
1. The multi-layered accomplishment of The Descendants makes me slap my forehead in disbelief at the Oscar win of the amusing but lightweight and not particularly inspired The Artist.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Also, don't forget the 2011 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.