Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Well-Bred Descendants

To be up front about it, I disagree with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.  The Descendants is a nice movie.  It has nice people and nice sentiments.  It is not, whatever director/co-screenwriter Alexander Payne may hope and opine, destined to be a “classic.”  Do you know what’s a classic?  It’s a Wonderful Life is a classic.  It doesn’t just have nice people.  It has mean people.  It doesn’t have a metaphorical bump in the road, it has actions with tragic consequences, it has real conflict, decisions made and regretted, decisions made and rejoiced, obstacles to overcome with pain — and a little help from friends.  Sorry, Mr. Payne.  Pleasant The Descendants is, classic it’s not.

Most of the people in the film are … pleasant.  There’s minimal conflict that is readily overcome.  Nevertheless, the across-the-board excellent performances, the simple structure, and the ultimate niceness of everybody makes for a nice couple hours at the movies.  If you want drama, complications, belly laughs or truly insurmountable odds, this is not the film for you.

In brief, Matt King has two obstacles to living a quiet yet fulfilled life:  First, that his wife Liz had an accident that has left her comatose with little likelihood of recovery.  This puts him at her hospital bedside trying to do his job (he’s a lawyer) and attempting to take care of their two daughters, teenaged Alexandra and 10 year old Scottie. All the while, of course, imagining how much better he'll make their lives together if only his wife will wake up.  Second, he is a descendant and trustee of a family that goes back to mid 19th century Hawaii when one missionary (a Mr. King) married a Hawaiian princess.  This has left “the Descendants” wealthy, although too many cousins have lived off their inheritance, and it dwindles. There’s one pristine piece of land left that the family holds in trust. Most of Matt’s cousins want to sell to developers; a few want to hang on.  The family vote will happen in a few days.  Matt King (apparently the only responsible adult in the family) as primary trustee has veto power to the vote, so we know how that plot line will turn out from the very beginning. 

George Clooney is lovely as Matt.  This is a balanced performance of an imperfect (read “normal”) man trying to be moral and fair and good.  Matt does well at this, although we wish, for the sake of his future ulcers, he’d let loose a bit more.  Initially Matt’s teenaged daughter Alexandra (a gorgeous performance by Shailene Woodley) appears to be a handful, but once the great revelation of the cause of her anger is made, she settles in as helpful, kind, moral, and a good caregiver to her younger sister Scottie (an affectingly true performance by Amara Miller). Alex also has an odd best friend named Sid, played endearingly by Nick Krause.

It’s not very long before we know Matt’s wife Liz won’t be coming out of her coma.  Matt doesn’t tell anyone this at first — it’s as if he’s punishing himself by carrying the burden alone.  So part of what’s happening here is watching Matt engage in self flagellation as he puts off telling Liz’s many adoring friends and family that she will die soon, and they should go to the hospital to say their goodbyes. 

The great revelation, of course, is shown in trailers, so this is hardly a spoiler.  Daughter Alexandra tells Matt that his wife was having an affair.  This is as destructive to Matt’s world view as his wife’s coma.  And he can never mention it to anyone.

Clooney, Woodley, and Miller (a.k.a. Matt, Alex, and Scottie King)
OK that’s all earth shattering for the people involved, of course.  But it’s all smoothed out in the filming.  Awfully nice people.  All neat, clean, and terribly sweet.  There’s nothing really to overcome here.  Death cannot, after all, be overcome.  Telling people that Liz is going to die is hard, and Matt cannot overcome that without his daughters’ support.  Matt is so adult and mature that he goes out of his way to tell the man with whom the comatose wife was having an affair that he’d best go to say goodbye.  He manages to do this without telling the man’s wife when they all meet, not accidentally.  This quest of discovery about the man his wife loved  affords Matt — under the guise of full disclosure — and his daughters, and the ubiquitous Sid the opportunity to go to the island where they own land, so we see the unadulterated shorefront acres that may be sacrificed to humans in the next few days.
 An annoying coincidence revealed by Matt’s cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges) is that the wife’s lover, Brian Speer, is a realtor who could profit hugely depending on the King family’s choice of what to do with the aforementioned land.

Matthew Lillard is very good in the role of the realtor/adulterous lover, showing fear of discovery and loss of his family, the most emotional depth Speer has. 

These are all excellent performances, from Clooney, from Judy Greer as the wronged wife of Brian Speer, from Lillard himself.  Robert Forster is smackable as a mean SOB, Matt’s bitterly brutal father-in-law, who is redeemed by his loving treatment of his wife, a gentle woman stricken with Alzheimer’s. 

Best of the bunch is the eldest daughter Alexandra — simple, true, smart-alecky and smart.  Plus Ms. Woodley has the unneeded bonus of being lithe and lovely.

The film left me grateful that I don’t have children, then sorry.  Cue Sondheim.  Alexander Payne directs smoothly, and Hawaii needs no assistance in appearing beautiful. The Descendants is polished and shiny.  It’s a pleasant way to while away some time, but does not require a big screen or the expenditures attached thereto.  Feel free to wait for the DVD or cable.

~ Molly Matera, signing off.  I think I’ll watch It’s a Wonderful Life….

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