The Descendants (review)

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George Clooney and Shailene Woodley in The Descendants

Road to the Future

Some movies just get it all right. I don’t mean the performances and the cinematography and the score and all that — though it’s always nice when that happens, and that certainly happens with The Descendants. I’m talking about the important stuff, the stuff the movie is about, the reason for the performances and the cinematography and the score in the first place. The important stuff here touches on how we cope with the past and the future, with death and life, with love and betrayal. The important stuff here is funny and brutal at the same time, crazy and wise and bittersweet with it, because wisdom always is tough and ridiculous and undeniable. The important stuff here is about what meaning we find in what it is to be alive now, at this very moment, when all of us — all of us — could change the course of the what’s to come, and all the stupid little shit we deal with in the course of a day influences that.

Cuz here’s Matt King (George Clooney: The Ides of March, The American), whose life looks pretty charmed. He lives in paradise — Hawaii — and he makes a cozy living as a lawyer, and his biggest problem at the moment is what to do with the “last huge parcel of virgin Hawaiian land” that he and a passel of his cousins own in trust, bequeathed it by their Hawaiian princess great-great-whatever-grandmother. Well, that was his biggest problem, until his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), had her boating accident, the one that landed her in a coma, one that looks to be irreversible. Now he spends his days at her hospital bedside, working, and his evenings trying to figure out his daughters, teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and preteen Scottie (Amara Miller), whom he barely knows because he spends all his time working.

Yes, “the absent father” sounds like a cliché, and too often in other stories it never rises above that, but Clooney is a marvel here. With unforced grace and charm, he is our unwitting and thoroughly sympathetic spirit guide through one of the most awful things anyone might experience: a loved one dying without actually dying. Though sometimes he’s an infuriation and an exasperation, too, realistically so: Matt is not idealized in any way, and the universes of confused and conflicting expression that cross his face in mere moments are deeply touching and often headshakingly hilarious. He is very very funny in that way that only Clooney, in the present spectrum of Hollywood stardom, can be, awkward and vulnerable at the same time he’s irresistibly attractive: it’s the (so far) ultimate embodiment of Clooney’s appeal, that he can seem movie-star godlike and acerbically, down-to-earth-ly human at the same time. One oddly uproarious scene, early in the film, sees him burst into a long awkward run through his suburban neighborhood in ill-fitting deck shoes, desperate to get more information about a secret of his wife’s life he’s only just learned. Matt’s behavior makes no logical sense, but it’s not supposed to: it’s an explosion of uncontrollable emotion, and it made me laugh and cry at the same time.

There’s just the slightest hint of absurdity that waffles through The Descendants, a wonderful sense of the ludicrous. There’s a lot of understatement — “This is a unique and dramatic situation,” one character notes at just the wrong moment — and at least one pointed moment that gets interrupted just as it’s about to get waaay too weirdly uncomfortable. The film makes a point, too, of highlighting how ordinary life in “paradise” is just that: ordinary. I’m not sure we’ve seen this side of Hawaii before, the tedious side that is just as monotonously American and suburban as Middle-of-Nowhere, Iowa, would be, were this story set there. Hawaii is not, The Descendants takes great pains to remind us, a permanent vacation.

But even ordinary is still significant. And sometimes ordinary is extraordinary. It’s a simple fact of life for Matt and all his many cousins that they hold a beautiful piece of unspoiled Hawaii in trust, and it’s clearly very much something they don’t think much about apart from how very very rich it’s going to make them all when they sell it, if Matt, who is sole executor, can decide which developer to sell to. Director Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election) — working from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] — smartly holds back our look at this legendary land for a long while. For us, it is much as it is for the cousins: a distant, abstract thing, a fungible thing, not a tangible one. And then, in one unforgettable sequence, Matt takes his daughter to visit the place one last time… and it is magnificent. We see this beautiful, untouched place, and think, Really? The world needs another golf course?

The weight of Matt’s responsibility then becomes truly urgent for us, too, and the unspoken themes of the film — What do we inherit from our ancestors, and what do we leave our children, and how do we value these things? — become crystal clear, and ineffably critical.

I’ve still got a few possible contenders to see, and there’s always the chance that some movie I don’t even see as a contender shoots out of the blue at me, but here’s where I am right now: The Descendants is the best movie of 2011. It is the movie of the year, in many ways beyond its simple superlative overall excellence. Here we are, at this moment of philosophical pushback against rampant corporatism and unchecked greed, and this movie embodies the fork in the road before us in ways that more blatantly on-point movies haven’t. The future is before us, on levels small and personal as well as larger and cultural, and the choice we take will make, literally, a world of difference. It’s our last chance to save a piece of the past, or the time to give in and cut all ties. What do we do?

viewed during the 55th BFI London Film Festival

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