DVD: Descendants, The

May 9, 2012 | By

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Film: Very Good/ DVD Transfer: Excellent/ DVD Extras: Very Good

Label: Fox Searchlight/ Region: 1 (NTSC) / Released: March 13, 2012

Genre: Drama / Comedy

Synopsis: As his wife is about to be taken off life support, a father mounts a road trip to bring closure with his daughters and extended friends & family.

Special Features: 3 Featurettes: “Everybody Loves George” + “Working with Alexander” + “Hawaiian Style”

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Review:

Oscar winner for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay; Golden Globe winner for Bets Motion Picture: Drama, and Best Performance by an Actor: Drama; and AFI Film Award winner for Movie of the Year.

Based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel, The Descendants is an extremely well made drama with dark and smart-assed humour wedged between moments of manipulative material designed to make sure at some point you, as a viewer, Will Be Moved.

Matt King’s (George Clooney) been charged with overseeing the sale of a huge virgin slice of property on Kauai before a new land decree removes his expansive family’s ownership through a trust dating back to a great grandfather. His comatose wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is also slated for a terminal shut-off, his daughters are super-mouthy and rebellious, and Matt discovers his wife was being unfaithful days before the accident that pushed her into a coma from a traumatic head injury.

The issue of infidelity pushes Matt to find the man responsible for enticing his wife, aided by youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller), eldest daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), and the latter’s dopey ‘friend’ Sid (Nick Krause), but what they find is a more situation than merely telling his wife’s lover Brian (Matthew Lillard) to ‘fuck off’ in his face – the end point to telling him the woman he screwed years ago is dying.

Alexander Payne’s film has been heavily overhyped by the critics, but what makes the whole story largely steer clear of steeped maudlin melodrama is Clooney’s nicely understated performance as Matt, a man overtly aware of the craziness piling up fast, and unafraid to emote his annoyance with pretty much everyone around. Family is family, he says, and that sentiment ensures there are no physical wars or outright nasty exchanges. Matt just instinctively keeps things in control, and knows if he gets to the end point of letting his wife die in peace, things will eventually work out – including whether to go along with the majority shareholder decision to turn the virgin land into another banal upscale tourist resort – or find some means to preserve its natural beauty for future generations.

Where the drama starts to grate is when every person Matt encounters seems to harbor some personal tragedy – idiot Sid just lost his father to a drunk driver, hence his common bond with Alexandra; and Matt’s mother-in-law has advanced Alzheimer’s – and these nuggets of sadness seem perfectly timed to pinch viewers who remain unresponsive to the cascade of emotional shocks, but unlike manipulative rubbish like What Dreams May Come (1998) or the clumsily structured The Upside of Anger (2005), the characters remain fairly earnest, and the superb cast gives the characters a next-door neighbour feel: no one’s a standout model, and most scenes do not occur in ritzy or extravagant locations designed to sell Hawaii like an advert. Hawaii is basically another state, with cities filled with ordinary people going through their own banal issues, and the actors – including Clooney – aren’t filmed as sexy movie stars. (Clooney himself looks quite goofy, playing Matt as a character befuddled for a good third of the picture.)

Many of the supporting roles are quite small, but actors Lillard (Scream, SLC Punk! [M]) and Robert Forster make good use of their small scenes, as do Judy Geer as Brian’s wife. Beau Bridges and Michael Onkean have small roles as Matt’s cousin, but one suspects the latter’s part was severely condensed in the final script, as Onkean has maybe a handful of short scenes & 2-3 lines, tops.

Payne’s instincts were to focus on the characters and strip away standard clichés, although whether the aforementioned manipulative elements stemmed from the novel is unknown; Descendants is basically a road movie about a fractured, potty-mouthed family searching for a mystery man that’s also bookended by a tragic subplot, and one gets the sense both director and novelist allowed things to wander a bit to make room for extra scenes for Matt and his daughters – letting them reacquaint themselves after years of sporadic encounters, and make peace to foster a lengthy healing process. It’s clichéd, but as filtered through Hemmings’ prose and her acute observations of the mixed white / Polynesian culture, the story manages to satisfy those wanting an emotionally cathartic drama.

The film’s production design is clean yet unostentatious, and Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography balances colourful shots of the islands with similarly clean, unglamorous images, some during overcast, blacchy days. A major asset is the mixed instrumental / song soundtrack, comprised of folk songs which counterpoint the characters’ stress moments, and perhaps impart the less hectic Hawaiian lifestyle inferred by the filmmakers, and more clearly articulated in the DVD’s making-of featurettes.

Fox Searchlight’s DVD features a clean transfer, and the extras include separate featurettes on working with Clooney, Payne, and a general behind-the-scenes featurette on the cast & crew reflecting on the location and people with whom they worked on Kawai.

Kaui Hart Hemmings’ original scripts include the TV movie Shelley Fisher (1999) and Breaking Waves (2011).

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© 2012 Mark R. Hasan

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External References:

IMDB Soundtrack AlbumSoundtrack Review

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