Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Descendants

A warm aloha to Alexander Payne as he returns after a seven year hiatus from writing and directing features. Payne goes from strength to strength with this Hawaiian-set story. George Clooney, also enjoying a purple patch, is proving himself to be a peculiar anomaly: an A-lister whose name on the credits ensures a stamp of quality.

Matt King (Clooney) and his family are descendants of white missionaries and Hawaiian royalty. King is the sole trustee of some prime real estate on the Hawaiian island of Kaua'i left to his family by their ancestors. He and his relatives look to get enormously rich from the morally dubious sale of the land. However, the main focus of the tale is on King’s struggle to keep his family from falling apart. He has troubles with his two daughters. He also has marital problems but here’s the kicker: his wife is in a coma following a boating accident. As the tragedy unfolds the legacy of King’s forefathers (i.e. the land) gains more significance.

It doesn’t sound like the most fun but if you’re familiar with any of Payne’s previous work you won’t be surprised that it is. The action unfolds with a good deal of humour. If you haven’t seen his previous works, Election, About Schmidt, or Sideways, then I can’t recommend them enough. As with all of the above, Payne supplies large doses of both hilarity and seriousness. But it is with his latest film that he delivers a little more of the latter. Something truly profound is achieved amidst the comedy. It poses (and answers) some serious questions about family, loyalty, life, and love. Peculiarly in this his most poignant work Payne’s new co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash possess comic credentials of the decidedly lower brow variety. (An important lesson here: never judge a writer by their IMDb profile.)

Clooney lobbied for the Thomas Haden Church role in Sideways but Payne, wanting someone less well known, turned him down. Their cinematic union on this has proved much more effective (I’m sure) and was certainly worth the wait. And even the smallest of roles has real potency. Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer all impress in the film. The entire project drips with quality.

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