Friday, November 18, 2011

Paradise Almost Lost: George Clooney Elevates a Mediocre Story

In The Descendants, fans of Alexander Payne may be hoping for the blackest of black comedy, the tone with which the director first made a name for himself. But the equal opportunity satire of Citizen Ruth (1996) and Election (1999) was already on the wane in About Schmidt (2002), a rather snide effort that simply belittled most of the characters. Despite admirably offbeat performances by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church in Sideways (2004), too much sentimentality crept into a film that’s periodically lovely in other ways – especially if you’ve imbibed some of the Napa Valley wine that’s central to the plot. But the new project, set in Hawaii, offers a far more conventional story than all of Payne’s previous works put together.

That said, it’s not without charm, thanks to the almost always charming George Clooney in the lead role as a cuckolded husband and somewhat absentee father who must assume primary care of their two daughters when his wife goes into an irreversible coma after a boating accident. He is Matt King, a multicultural real estate attorney whose ancestor, King Kamehameha the Great, united all the islands of the archipelago under his rule in 1810. This contemporary man of royal lineage has trouble uniting with his children – 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), a typically alienated teenager – so together they can endure the absence of a hospitalized mother who is unlikely to survive.

Such turmoil would be difficult enough, but a confused Matt must contend with the infidelity of his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) – which he first hears about from Alexandra – and guilt at not having been a very good husband or parent. On top of all the personal angst, he is the trustee for 25,000 inherited acres of beautiful coastal land on the island of Kauai that his big extended family has owned since 1860 but now wants to sell. Turns out the developer hoping to transform the pristine property into condos, golf courses and shopping malls is the very guy who had been sleeping with Elizabeth: Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), an archetype of greedy sleaze. He’s married to the unsuspecting Julie (Judy Greer) and they have young kids of their own.

George Clooney, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller

Matt and his daughters embark on a road trip with Alexandra’s loopy boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), the kind of stoner we’ve seen in every movie with potheads at least since Fast Times at Ridgemont High in 1982. Like Clooney, though, this newcomer has charm to spare as an actor. The first stop for the squabbling quartet is at the home of Elizabeth’s folks to inform them that, in accordance with the Do Not Resuscitate order she had once signed, a decision has been made to pull the plug. Her grief-stricken father Scott (Robert Forster) is a rageaholic who punches the hapless Sid for his insouciance. We later discover the boy does care, however.

When Matt finally meets up with Brian, the film becomes cartoonish for a while. These disappointing sequences are later rescued by the actions of Julie, a sensitive woman with the heartbeat missing in the man she presumably loves. But the true reward of The Descendants rests in a reunion of the diverse King clan, which includes an untrustworthy cousin named Hugh (Beau Bridges). They look like the 99 percent, despite the fact that some of them have prospered into the 1 percent. Payne, who worked with cowriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash to adapt a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, delivers a sort of Occupy Hawaii message.

Laura Dern in Citzen Ruth
The initially ambivalent Matt’s populist, environmentalist speech to his kin might be a bit cliched but not easy to dismiss in this era of unprecedented income disparity and ecological destruction. Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography makes it very clear what’s at stake. The Descendants is about trouble in paradise. The far superior Citizen Ruth focuses on a drug-addled, unwittingly pregnant woman (Laura Dern) in a troubled world that’s devoid of any paradise. The humor and social conscience displayed in the former film is rather run-of-the-mill in comparison with that of the latter, among the most wickedly funny, biting movies of all time. No matter which side of the abortion debate you’re on, who can ever forget the absolutely brilliant moment with two pro-choice, lesbian uberfeminists (Swoosie Kurtz and Kelly Preston) worshiping the moon goddess? King Kamehameha the Great might have approved.

 – Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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