THE DESCENDANTS directed by Alexander Payne (USA, 2011)

Dad & daughter : Matt + Alex (George Clooney and Shailene Woodley)

This movie has won over most American critics and also looks likely to win George Clooney an Oscar for his role as affluent property lawyer, Matt King.

But while it’s a warm-hearted, highly watchable film, it is far from being the classic it’s made out to be.

As a mid-life crisis movie it is not in the same league as Payne’s earlier films (Sideways + About Schmidt) and I tend to agree with one of the dissenting critics, Rex Reed of The New York Observer, who described in as “a soap opera with Hawaiian shirts”.

I also hated the soundtrack of Hawaiian music which is at best mildly irritating and at worst a major intrusion.

The story is of a lost,and soon to be lone, parent confronted by pressing life choices.

Matt’s  wife, Liz, has had a motorboat accident and she is now in a coma with no realistic hope of recovery. As a result, Matt  has the full charge of  his daughters Scotty and Alex aged 10 and 17. This is a big responsibility and a major headache since  both girls are wayward, rebellious and practically unmanageable. His problems are compounded by the fact that Alex’s boyfriend Sid comes over as a stoner nerd from hell.

As if this wasn’t enough, Matt is under pressure as the sole proprietor of a trust inherited from his ancestor which includes a stretch of unspoilt Hawaiian coastline. His extended family want him to sell and he on the verge of doing just that until he learns that one of the men who stand to gain from the deal is a Brian Speer, his wife’s hitherto secret lover. The discovery of this infidelity coupled with the dilemma of what to do with the land drives him to confront both his conscious and Speer.

My hunch is that a major part of George Clooney’s appeal lies not only in his good looks but that he represents a perfect American gentleman – suave, smart, ethical and dependable. Even when he is angry, he is able to keep his emotions in check and remain calmly articulate, never resorting to blind rage – “Fuck you and she’s dying“, he says conversationally when meeting Speer face-to-face for the first time.

All these positive qualities present a problem in asking us to believe that Matt King was anything other than a model husband. In the opening voiceover, he admits that his marriage was on the rocks but we never learn exactly what brought on this marital conflict. He is shown to be a bit of a workaholic but ,as a successful lawyer, this is presumably not something new. He only learns of his wife’s infidelity after her fatal accident.

What this movie badly needs is more nasty characters. The fact that almost everyone bends over backwards to be accommodating and reasonable severely reduces the dramatic tension. The meanest guy is Liz’s father (Robert Forster) who has a bad word to say about everyone except his daughter. You could put down his misanthropy to grief although when Sid asks “Is he always such a prick?”, Matt replies, matter of factly, “Yes”.

All the rough edges get to be nicely smoothed out by the end.  Matt’s oldest daughter magically sheds her adolescent petulance to show real maturity and common sense; her boyfriend shows he’s not the nerd we think he is, Scotty shows signs of following her older sister’s example and Brian Speer doesn’t profit from his misdemeanours.

If only real life was like this.

Footnote : Look out for Beau Bridges who plays Matt’s cousin Hugh and tries to out-dude his brother Jeff’s role as THE Dude in The Big Lebowski and fails miserably. 

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