Sunday 4 November 2012

The Descendants (2011) - Alexander Payne

There’s trouble in paradise.  Matt King (George Clooney) is the “backup parent” in a typically dysfunctional family.  When his wife is stuck in a coma after a boating accident, he is left to reconnect with the family archipelago of his two daughters – precocious adolescent Alex (wonderfully played by Shailene Woodley) and innocent but growing-up-too-fast Scottie (Amara Miller).  On discovering his wife was cheating on him, he embarks on a cathartic journey to find the philanderer, cementing his own relationships in the process.  Indeed, “paradise can go fuck itself”.

This might sound like a melancholic drama, but it’s actually a rather heart-warming tale.  There’s plenty of comedic moments here – from Clooney’s running, to Nick Krause’s dumbass portrayal of Sid (Alex’s friend) – which gives the film a light-hearted feel, despite the intense subject matter of death, infidelity and the importance of family bonds.  As the narrative progresses, we witness a family mending itself before our eyes. 

Set in Hawaii, it’s all rather beautiful too.  The landscape shifts and evolves through the camera lens to match the narrative, from downtrodden, rain-soaked domestic exteriors to the sun-drenched idyll we all expect.  The visuals are backed by a gentle guitar soundtrack, reflecting the laidback way of life that is juxtaposed with the drama.

Yet the relaxed pace extends to the film itself, which meanders lazily through the plot.  This may give us time to soak in the environments and the gradual formation of character, but the film lacks a sense of tautness and drive.  And whilst it’s all warm, lovely and makes you all gooey inside, it does border on overly sweet and sentimental towards the end.

Thankfully the central, tear-jerking performance from Clooney raises the film to new levels.  His character grows from the “backup” parent to a real father in a credible, loveable and moving performance that’s certainly worthy of his Oscar nomination.