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'The Descendants' Is Compulsively Watchable

The story deals with precisely the sort of messy, depressing ordeals in life we go to the movies to get away from, but the languid pace and occasional shots of off kilter wry humor allow it to never become such an overwhelming plunge into despair as to be unwatchable.

The Descendants

Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Robert Forster, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer
Distributor: Fox
Rated: R
Release date: 2012-03-12
“Paradise? Paradise can go fuck itself.”

-- The Descendants

Is there a better counterpoint to the mortal specters of injury and illness, death and dying, than Hawaii? And not necessarily (or just) the physical place of Hawaii, in all of its tropical, effulgent splendor—the pristine, crystalline beaches; the dense, teeming rainforests; the spectacular volcanic mountains—but more the idea of Hawaii. Hawaii as the very embodiment of a lost earthly paradise, divorced from the harsh realities of the mainland world; a place where nothing ugly ever intrudes (at least not since the bombing of Pearl Harbor), where life and time is calm, unhurried and infinite, where good health (both physical and emotional) is perpetual and death is a but a distant rumor flitting on the edge of the horizon, but never making it to shore.

Matt King’s (George Clooney) sardonic voice over in the opening moments of The Descendants quickly disabuses us of this notion of Hawaii, blowing up its Edenic mirage of the easy life as he brings us up to speed on his current state of affairs: a major, stressful land deal involving himself, his sundry relations, and heavy hitting investors, the welfare of the entire state of Hawaii hanging on his imminent, difficult decision; his trouble causing ten-year-old daughter, Scottie, in immediate need of serious solo parenting (which he has never been any good at); another daughter, Alex, 17, rebellious and self-destructive, off at reform school; and his estranged wife Elizabeth lying comatose, and possibly dying, in a hospital bed, knocked out by a grievous head injury from a freak boating accident.

So he’s got a lot on his plate, and it’s all bearing down, from all directions, all at once. Paradise, indeed.

And yet Hawaii—or should I say, “Hawaii”—is always there, right in the foreground (indeed, it should get top billing with Clooney, so much is it the other major character in the film), lulling us with its breezy, somewhat sedated siren song (with ukulele accompaniment, of course). If it’s not insistent, it’s at least tidally irresistible—life, in all its wondrous buoyancy, will always continue on, keeping us afloat, even in the face of seemingly irreparable loss and tragedy.

If he had made the film a decade earlier, perhaps director Alexander Payne—a small-scale master of wry character studies and sardonic condescension—might have played this all for irony, exposing his subjects’ petty foibles in juxtaposition to the setting’s overwhelming and simple beauty. But now, in 2011, Payne seems at peace with his characters, or himself, and so there is an odd complementariness between King’s personal ordeals and the setting that is harmonious, if not perfect.

Not that there is much harmony within the film itself. King’s problems escalate immediately from bad to worse, as he receives an emotional one-two punch that would lay most of us out cold: the doctor tells him that Elizabeth has no viable chance of recovery and will, per her wishes, be taken off life support; and his older daughter Alex, recently retrieved from boarding school, reveals that Elizabeth had been having an affair. King’s reaction to this double loss all at once—of his wife in actuality, and his idea of who his wife was—drives the remainder of the film… though "drive" is perhaps too strong a word. The Descendants mostly meanders along, the rhythms of Hawaiian life dictating its tone and direction, mirroring the listless grasping of King, as he tries to make sense of it all himself, and help his daughters make peace with their mother’s imminent death, as well.

King’s emotional and spiritual journey leads down a path towards acceptance and reconciliation—with Elizabeth’s crusty father; with the man she was cheating with; with the fickleness of accident and fate; and ultimately, with Elizabeth herself. But how do you reconcile with someone who cannot hear and respond to you, someone who is utterly cut off and remote, someone you’ll never be able to reach and make things right with?

It’s emotionally heavy and devastating stuff, dealing directly with precisely the sort of messy, depressing ordeals in life we go to the movies to get away from, but The Descendants' languid pace and occasional shots of off kilter, wry humor allow it to never become such an overwhelming plunge into despair as to be unwatchable- - in fact, the film is never anything other than compulsively watchable.

And this is where Payne’s Trojan Horse strategy (hypnotic Hawaiian setting + occasional mordant humor + the easy charm of George Clooney) pays off in spades, because by the time we become fully aware of the vast, deeply buried well of pain and loss that has been slowly drawn to the surface, and is now overspreading everything in sight, we are so fully invested in King and his family, that we feel the full extent of their loss as acutely as they do. I defy anyone to watch King’s final goodbye to his wife – hovering just over her comatose face, a tear dropping down his cheek, kissing her crusted lips one last time—and not be at least misting up, if not openly bawling.

The Descendants is generous and humane in a manner that so few films about death and dying are, channeling an honesty that is even rarer. It feels like a direct evocation of life (or Life with a capital “L”), like it’s tapped into some mainline near the base root of human existence, and what courses onto the screen is a sort of plasmic stream containing the simplest truths of ourselves. This might make it sound more mystical (and pretentious) than I want it too – I assure you, there is nothing mystical or pretentious about this story. It's plain and precise and straightforward, and about as human as filmmaking gets – it’s just that in our hectic, mainland world, we probably see so little what's truly human as our lives rush by, that we are in danger of not recognizing it when it’s standing right in front of us. We may mistake it for something else, or miss its significance, or just deny its existence. So, well... here it is.

The Descendants relatively rushed home release on DVD contains what I suppose these days would be considered an adequate batch of extras. They don't necessarily add anything much to appreciating the film itself, but are enjoyable enough, if a bit light. “Everyone Loves George” is pretty much what it sounds like it would be—cast and crew going on and on about what a nonpareil joy it is to work with Clooney. And who could possibly deny this? Clooney's charm is effortless and irresistible, and by all accounts, his screen persona is not all that different from how he is in real life. Clooney never chimes in himself, which saves all this from smarminess.

“Working with Alexander” follows a similar template, except about director Alexander Payne. Payne himself chimes in quite a bit, but mostly to deflect any praise coming his way onto his crew, most of whom have been with him for close to two decades. Though he's always struck me as a director of no small precision, he does seem to defer a lot to the dictates of his collaborators, all across the board, never wanting to complicate the film with anything overstylized or overdirected. This sort of style pays off in spades with The Descendants, which has, if not an explicitly vérité style, at least the feeling that the camera is spying on very private and unrehearsed moments.

The longest feature, about Hawaiian life and style, is the most enjoyable. A lot of small little details that would escape a viewer not familiar with Hawaii are illuminated here—the spiritual, healing powers of a traditional Hawaiian quilt (seen on the wife's hospital bed, and then at the end of the film as King and his daughters watch TV); the zenlike, unfailingly generous world view of native islanders; and the rich linguistic heritage of the native tongue and the verbal gyrations of the local pidgin.

The best thing I learned, though, is that in September 1992, a large hurricane blew through the islands, and on the island of Kauai, a large number of chicken coops were demolished, leading to a rash of feral chickens roaming loose and proliferating across the island, which outbreak continues down to this day, and which explains why when King takes his daughters over to Kauai in the film, there are chickens everywhere.


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