Movie News & Reviews
The Descendants: When a Location Becomes the Main Character
The Descendants – (2011 Ad Hominem Enterprises)
Amidst the holiday blockbuster season at the movies came a quiet film by the name of The Descendants, staring Hollywood shot caller George Clooney, he who has a knack for flying under the radar from time to time with subtle roles that don’t involve an entourage set on pulling of a heist of some sort. In the Descendants, George trades interaction with the blue eyes of Pitt or Damon for the azure tones of the South Pacific and a lesser known cast.
The beginning finds main character Matthew King (Clooney), a descendant of Hawaiian royalty, living on Oahu and amidst sudden tragedy with his wife Elizabeth in a boating accident induced coma. As a self proclaimed backup, or “understudy”, parent to two girls aged 10 and 17, King is tasked with coming to terms with his wife’s impending passing while managing the rollercoaster that accompanies daughters in emotional peril.
Before you grab for the Kleenex box, know that the movie lightens the emotional toll for the audience, but not for King, by making the wife a less than sympathetic character when it is discovered that she has been having an affair, and fallen in love, with another man. We do see that Elizabeth is a spirited soul, surrounded by friends and family that love her dearly, but there is more than a hint that she lived a selfish, albeit full, life. Even further distressing to our perception of Mrs. King is that she cheats on her handsome (although a little weather beaten) hubby with “other man” Brian Speer - Matthew Lillard (as in Shaggy from Scooby Doo fame) - a real estate agent who is also married with children, throwing her comatose character further down the well of lost empathy.
We also discover Elizabeth’s strained relationship with the eldest daughter Alexandra, performed with teen angst perfection by the lovely Shailene Woodley, that serves to bring her and her father’s distant relationship closer. Alexandra’s boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) also saves the story from becoming too dark with his Jack Black meets Keanu Reeves demeanor. However, we feel the biggest pull on the aorta strings for the youngest daughter, Scottie, who although exhibits early signs of rebellion, is innocent of all that surrounds her. Our hearts break for her when everyone in the film (and audience) is privy to everything that surrounds the severity of the family turmoil but her.
Finally, as if King doesn’t have enough on his plate, comes the fact that the whole island chain of Hawaii is awaiting his decision on what will become of once protected land on Kauai entrusted to him by his royal (but watered down by passing generations) bloodline. King’s extended family, including short on screen time Cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), claw at the door for him to sell off the land to the highest bidder, resulting a multi-million dollar payday for all, but at the expense of unscathed land on Kauai’s shores that would be converted to a golf resort. This topic is where The Descendants truly finds its soul.
We often hear how the location of a movie is as much a character as the actors within, especially with respect to cities such as New York. But nowhere is this statement more true than with Hawaii in this circumstance. The Descendants pulls the hibiscus flower patterned curtain back on Oahu within the first few seconds of the film, showing freeway gridlock, homeless tent cities, a less than attractive Chinatown, and allowing Clooney to utter the words “Paradise can go fuck itself”. The sentiment is felt by many when arriving at HNL for the first time as they make the trek to Waikiki, passing through a side of Honolulu that they did not anticipate after browsing through countless vacation brochures.
But with that out of the way, island beauty begins to subtly shine through, even though the days in the film are covered by rain clouded skies. The deep repeating chirps of the doves that pepper the sidewalks and trees of Hawaii echo throughout the film and character’s homes are noticeably accented with rich koa wood decor. Flip flops and loafers constrain the actors physical movements to an island pace (witness Clooney running to a neighbour’s house), business wear includes Aloha shirts and dialogue replaces “Thank you” with “Mahalo”, “Hello” with “Howzit”, and sole questions marks with “Yah?”. Throw in a slack key guitar ridden soundtrack worthy of an Oscar for musical score and it’s clear that someone did their homework on Hawaii.
You’re also sold on Hawaii’s magical appeal once again when the King’s make their way to the incomparably beautiful island of Kauai on a mission to confront Elizabeth’s affair. This is where Hawaii really takes the main stage and the actors’ skills are determined by their ability to interplay with the nuances of the islands. Yes, Clooney is always charming, but those in the know will cry foul quickly if he cannot convey the idiosyncrasies that accompany a haole descendant of the Kamehameha Dynasty struggling to navigate decisions that affect not only his immediate family, but the island chain as a whole. Clooney also did his homework.
As a standalone film, The Descendants does its job in giving the audience something it can relate to as far as family struggles go and every actor holds their own with Clooney, with the exception of guest spot Hawaiian - Laird Hamilton – one of the world’s greatest watermen who is respectfully best served sliding down the slopes of giant waves in American Express commercials and action sport videos than testing his acting chops on the silver screen. On a larger scale, The Descendants has found its path to becoming one of first Hollywood feature films to truly recognize Hawaii as being a unique regional phenomenon that requires as much care as a character in the same manner as taken by Woody Allen or Scorsese do for New York. We’re not sure why it took someone (Descendants director Alexander Payne) from Nebraska to pull it off, but it worked. Mahalo Mr. Payne.
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