Archive for George Clooney

Film Review: The Descendants (2011)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , , on February 29, 2012 by innothingwetrust


As this is my first review, I might as well set out my stall early: If there is one thing that really gets my goat in films, it’s bad exposition. ‘Exposition’ is basically all the methods by which the film maker reveals the plot and key information to the viewer. The most common form is dialogue: how do you let the audience know that one character is looking for a place to live? You have them say to another character, “Cor blimey, this house hunt is doing my head in!”. Or words to that effect… It can also be acheived through subtler means, such as showing them looking through property listings or attending a house viewing. Good exposition – much like good costumes or visual effects – goes completely unnoticed; it flows with the pace of the film and feeds the audience information without them knowing. It is the cinematic equivalent of hiding pills in your dog’s chunky meat dinner so that it gobbles them down thinking it has got one over on you after it refused to eat them on their own. Bad exposition is like offering the pills as dinner itself, and the worst films proceed to ram them down your throat with a baseball bat. ‘Blockbusters’ such as the Transformers films and the otherwise-excellent Avatar tend to be the chief offenders, and it often exposes the financial rather than artistic motives behind such films. However, judging by the rate at which Joe Public laps up such offerings, it seems to be a sadly common and successful practise.

So given how passionately I feel about exposition, my heart rather sank during the opening 10 minutes of The Descendants. The introduction is narrated by the main character, Matt King (George Clooney). Nothing wrong with narration, and some of the initial monologues add interesting insights into his character. But when the narration ceases to be a stream of King’s thoughts and becomes a literal description of what is going on in the film, a line is crossed. However, I must admit to being torn – on the one hand this is blatant exposition at its worst, but on the other, it is so unashamed that it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. In going straight for the jugular and explicitly telling us the background to the story, much time is saved and when the narrative is thankfully dropped after the opening chapter, the film can concentrate on being an excellent character piece.

Fundamentally, this film is about opposing things coming together and exploring the friction and the aftermath of their collisions. Clooney sets this tone with the very first lines of the film which ridicule the notion that Hawaiians live in ‘paradise’. Their cancers, he points out, are no less deadly than mainland dwellers’ and their families no less dysfunctional, and the first tension between the spectacular beauty of the story’s setting and the jadedness of our main protagonist emerges when he asserts that “Paradise can go fuck itself”. Then there is the issue of the sub-plot: King is the chief benefactor for a trust consisting of his other family members who own a large plot of land on one of Hawaii’s islands. The family is weighing up bids from various developers who will turn the land into luxury holiday condos, 5 star hotels and retreats for the wealthy. The friction between this impending decision and the wishes of the natives – who do not wish to see their homeland turned into a tacky resort – is dropped into the story periodically and keeps perfect pace with the key events. There are other contrasts; King’s transition from ‘back-up parent’ and hard working businessman to his new role as a single dad while his wife Elizabeth is in a coma with two feisty daughters to look after is interesting and often provides welcome moments of light comic relief.

But by far the most intriguing plot point is the dualism of the main event – Mrs. King is in a coma following a speedboat accident and (SPOILER ALERT) we are told that she will never wake up. Instantly Matt, who has already rued all the missed opportunities and time spent apart from his wife and has expressed a wish to change and not take her for granted again, switches into a very convincingly human ‘goodbye’ mode, trying to remember all the good times to ensure that he is left with only positive memories of his loved one. However, he is afforded no time to do this as the revelation of his wife’s recent infidelity is dropped on him to further compound his misery. What follows is a journey through King’s battle to reconcile the wife he loved with the wife who betrayed him (and who, importantly, is not able to defend herself) and the impact this has on his ability to deal with his sense of loss, the enormous decision he has to make regarding the land sale, his feuding family, his new responsibilities as a father to his foul-mouthed daughters and his ability to move on from it all. It is an intriguing and compelling story.

However, it is not all gold. There is the aforementioned lazy opening and I also take slight issue with one of the film’s other characters, Sid. Sid is shackled to our main characters through King’s daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) who is for some reason referred to throughout the film as ‘Alexander’. She claims that having her friend present throughout this ordeal will stop her ‘freaking out’, which is a thinly veiled excuse for super-imposing a comedy character onto a film which doesn’t necessarily need it. Sid’s introduction is like inviting a clown to a board meeting – it might provide some light relief and some of the suits might have a chuckle or two, but sooner or later one of the juggling balls is going to knock a drink all over someone’s notes, especially when their method of entertainment is to brazenly laugh at inappropriate times and to make unfathomably offensive comments. An attempt is made to add a bit more substance to his character when he and Clooney have a late night heart-to-heart, but the conversation doesn’t really go anywhere and we are none the wiser as to either character’s motivations than we were before. In addition, a scene late on with the potential to add another conflict of interests – namely the wife of Elizabeth King’s lover confronting her comatose counterpart and her hatred for her clashing with her desire to forgive – is reduced to a farce when she gets hystrerical and Matt bundles her out the door to avoid some sort of embarrassment. However, these loose threads are small and don’t detract too much from the overall tapestry, which is a well-woven and compelling pattern of contradictions.

There are two excellent performances on display here: firstly, Clooney’s Matt King is emotionally wrought, believably human and satisfyingly pro-active in equal measure. He could just mope around and question his station in life (which wouldn’t make for a very interesting film), but he decides to go and do something about finding out the truth, which includes a hilarious sprint down the road in flip flops to his friend’s house. This pro-action is aided by his believable daughter, Alexandra. Shailene Woodley forges an excellent partnership with her on-screen father and keeps the main character going while also dealing with her sometimes rather annoying younger sister, Scottie. The integrity of her character is somewhat undermined, however, by the fact that at every opportunity she is squeezed into a revealing bikini. Call me old fashioned, but given the fact that she is only supposed to be 17, it does verge dangerously on child pornogrophy.

Overall, this is a gripping story which pulls the viewer through the same mangle of emotions which the characters find themselves in. The themes of contrasts and collisions mean that it is never quite comfortable to watch, but that only fits in perfectly with the dualism of a heart-wrenching story set in paradise. It is ultimately a very sad film, but sometimes sad films are the best ones. Conclusions are drawn in all the right places and you leave with a very true message – that paradise begins in your heart. If that is not content, you can be anywhere and still want to kill yourself.

RATING: 8/10

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