Tuesday, November 15, 2011

No Paradise: The Descendants

People really do work in Hawaii. Attorney Matt King does little else. As a result, when tragedy strikes his wife, King is ill-prepared to carry the sole parenting load in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Like his father before him, King represents the responsible branch of one of Hawaii’s mainline families, distantly related to the House of Kamehameha. Unfortunately, his cousins are wastrels who have largely squandered their legacy. However, Occupy Hawaii-style legislation will confiscate the Kings’ ancestral holdings, unless they liquidate before the mandated deadline. Ironically, this will force them to sell a vast swath of pristine coastline to commercial developers.

With the closely scrutinized sale pending, King is already under pressure when his wife suffers a head injury and falls into a coma. She will not revive. Person by person, King must tell her friends and family the bad news. While carrying out this grim duty, he discovers she was having an affair. It also seems his oldest daughter Alexandra already knew, and now deeply resents both her parents for allowing it to happen.

Descendants is considerably better than the maudlin melodrama one might expect. The dialogue is consistently sharp and the astutely observed relationships develop in intriguing ways. Particularly striking is Matt and Alexandra King’s sort of-kind of role reversal, stemming from his boomerish lack of confidence in his own parental authority. Nevertheless, the film falls into something of a repetitive pattern of tell-and-grieve that is admittedly true to life, but could certainly be streamlined for dramatic purposes.

In a way, Clooney’s performance as King plays both with and against his playboy persona. He is still positioned as the smartest, smoothest guy in the room, but he allows himself to look awkward and old at times. His voice-overs are also initially rather clever (“leave your kids enough to do something, but not enough to do nothing”), but risk becoming too pithy as the film progresses. Yet, at times he summons some power we never knew he had in him, most notably when he “confronts” his comatose wife with her infidelity. Raw and brutally honest, it is the kind of scene you rarely see in film.

How depressing would it be to learn your wife was cheating with Matthew Lillard? To be fair, he is probably okay in the part, if Payne was looking to make Brian Speer a decidedly low rent lothario. In contrast, the classy Judy Greer makes the most of a relatively small role as his wife, Julie Speer. As Alexandra, Shailene Woodley definitely holds her own with Clooney, whom she shares considerable screen time as near equals. Yet, it is the old pro Robert Forrester who really lowers the emotional boom as King’s bitterly distraught father-in-law.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the film is notion of the King family as the titular descendants, blessed with good fortune and tied by blood to the enormously photogenic Hawaiian landscape. In fact, it almost makes an old world defense of class privilege, suggesting the state’s rich land reserves can only be entrusted to the enlightened upper-class, as personified by King. Tacky middle class cads like Speer will only exploit it for all its worth. That is unusual territory for a film to unintentionally veer into. Yet, Descendants is a film with several small surprises. Unexpectedly smart and frank, it is a pretty good showcase for Clooney and the mostly excellent ensemble cast, rather worth seeing when it opens tomorrow (11/16) in New York at the Lincoln Square and Union Square Theaters.