The Descendants Review

Do you know where you’re coming from?

In Alexander Payne’s new Golden Globe winning film The Descendants, our Gorgeous George shaped protagonist understands where he’s from all too well.

If only he was as familiar with his present.

We begin with a young looking, middle aged woman with a carefree smile on her face and the ocean breeze in her hair is enjoying a ride on a speeding motor boat.

This is Elizabeth King, and she’s about to have an accident.

Elizabeth’s husband, Matt, is a lawyer who’s got too wrapped up in his own career and other familial responsibilities.

For he also happens to be one of the few remaining descendants of a Hawaiian Princess, and sole trustee of the land that belongs to him and an assortment of cousins since his own father’s death.

So it has fallen upon Matt to decide what they should do with the stunningly beautiful and highly lucrative land bequeathed to them.

Elizabeth’s enforced absence has also left Matt in a tight spot.

Slightly detached from a family he’s come close to neglecting, Matt now has to deal with playing sole parent to his two daughters, Alexandra and Scottie.

In the midst of reconnecting with his eldest and more rebellious daughter, Matt discovers just why Alexandra’s relationship with her mother had deteriorated in recent months.

With his concern for Elizabeth spun on its axis, Matt begins to question his own reality and embarks on a quest to find the truth of the life he now leads.

The Descendants is another slow burning feature seen through the lens of Sideways director Payne.

Based on the celebrated book of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants is essentially a coming of age story with a twist; instead of the conventional teenager who’s struggling to find their place in this world, it’s a middle aged man who’s lost touch with himself.

George Clooney plays Matt King with all the grace and presence his stature now demands, with pleasant flashes of his comedic chops as gloriously seen in the Coen brothers classic, O Brother Where Art Thou?

Still, it’s hard to fight the feeling he’s a little on autopilot here. There are moments where you’d expect his character to explode with rage and emotion at what he’s going through, but these never quite materialise.

Which may be more to do with the script than Clooney’s performance, as The Descendants never quite leaves behind that understated feel of a film which has been adapted from a book.

Not that there’s a great deal wrong with this, but events that unfold never quite feel as cinematic as they could.

The supporting cast are largely unknown, with the exception of Beau Bridges in a cameo as one of the cousins.

In fact, Bridges even channels his own sibling’s most loved cinematic incarnation for his portrayal of a Hawaiian dude.

Of course, there’s only one Dude I can abide by.

Apart from the stunning natural landscapes of Hawaii featured throughout, The Descendants true lasting legacy is of the gentle story it tells us about unknown skeletons which lurk inside every family’s cupboard.

So unless you want to forsake your present, don’t get too wrapped up in the past.

Jonathan Campbell

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January 2012
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