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This article was first published 12 years ago  » Movies » Review: The Descendants is a triumph of human imperfection

Review: The Descendants is a triumph of human imperfection

By Shaikh Ayaz
January 26, 2012 09:57 IST
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Shaikh Ayaz raves about George Clooney's Oscar-nominated film, The Descendants.

Among many things, The Descendants is a film of infinite surprises and of breezy calm that is usually associated with seaside towns. The central paradox is the way in which director Alexander Payne places the inner turmoil, the emotional storms of his characters against an unusual choice of location, Hawaii – laidback and affluent, visibly but not condescendingly.

Early on, Matt King (George Clooney), a lawyer-land owner, perfectly settled into middle-aged complacency, tells us that in Hawaii, "some of the most powerful people dress like beach bums."

Payne depicts Hawaii affectionately and he had every reason to, because of Matt's attachment to his ancestral land. There's a scene in which Matt shows his daughters Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) his land and it's clear that he doesn't see it as a cash-rich property but as a soil of his boyhood years.

Matt is in love with his land, as much as his family but for some reason, he has lost touch with both. This loss of connection is brought out with quiet wit and profundity and Hawaii serves neither as a background nor as a participant – rather as a witness, telling you that there are people who live in Hawaii who are not tourists on "permanent vacation."

Payne's first two films, Citizen Ruth and Election (and some parts of About Schmidt) were set in his hometown Omaha, on a land he must be profoundly familiar with. Yet, it is in The Descendants that he uses the location as an omniscient character.

Like About Schmidt, this film, too, explores the condition of a middle-aged man who moonlights as the narrator. In one respect, Matt could just well be a younger version of Warren Schmidt – both are passive men, their routines set out and are in an advanced stage of disconnect with their spouse.

An untimely speed boat accident causes Matt's wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) to slip into a state

of coma and this puts Matt into a vortex of domestic duties which includes taking care of his daughters. He tells us he is an "understudy", a substitute parent, now faced with the challenge of raising his daughters amidst the family politics over a land deal. 

He has a sense of alienation with his growing daughters -- not to forget the generation gap. He knows he has been a dis-involved parent so far and also that his kids are "getting too smart" for him. As the film tracks his journey from a reluctant father to a doting dad, Matt reveals his timidly textured personality which holds this film together. Here is a character with great flaws and acts, most often, opposite to what you think. This is the film's real surprise.

In a scene when he gets the opportunity to settle score with his wife's illicit lover Brian (Matthew Lillard), instead of the rap that you expect a betrayed husband to dish out, he forges a kiss on the lover's wife. Perhaps, that's his catharsis, a way of saying, 'Look, you did it to my wife, I did it to yours.'

Matt is curious to know if Brian has ever been inside his bedroom and what's even more heartbreaking for him is to learn that Elizabeth loved Brian and was contemplating divorce. Her days are numbered and the King family has to deal with this grief together. They do exactly that, breaking down their iciness and move towards shared intimacy and mutual understanding.

Matt King is a fine character sketch, given to human errors and misjudgements. There is no pressing urgency here to arrive at denouement and keeping that in mind, Clooney plays Matt with composure and compassion. The supporting characters, especially Woodley as the teenage daughter, her friend Sid and Matt's cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges) add much depth and humour.

The Descendants
is a definitive tour de force in writer-director Payne's staccato career, a film in which all his recurring themes -- middle-aged protagonist at the cusp of a life-altering situation, crisis in relationships and the use of comedy as an instrument to smile away at life's difficulties -- fuse into one, single meditative moment.

And just how much time his characters (Sideways, About Schmidt and this) spend travelling, talking, and being on the road, reminding you that life is not a permanent vacation but an impermanent one.

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Shaikh Ayaz in Mumbai