Film review: The Descendants

The idyllic island backdrop may pall but the chemistry between George Clooney and his clan ignites the film, says Will Brooker

January 26, 2012

The Descendants

Directed by Alexander Payne

Starring George Clooney, Judy Greer, Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard, Robert Forster and Shailene Woodley

Released in the UK on January

"Are you guys going to talk to me in clichés?" George Clooney demands of his friends, midway through The Descendants. He should have asked his director, Alexander Payne. Although the movie opens with Clooney's voice-over rejecting stereotypes of Hawaii as a holiday paradise, the next two hours are interspersed with glossy views of Honolulu, Waikiki and Kauai that could grace a promotional video for the islands, backed with the gentle strumming and singing of local music artists. Like tropical cocktails and leis, both of which also feature in the movie, this tourist treatment is charming at first, but its welcome wears off when each scene of dialogue or character development is followed by a leisurely stroll or drive down another sunny avenue. The camerawork, too, is oddly corny: there are slow zoom-outs, dissolves and even a wipe, a technique that was quaintly dated when George Lucas used it in Star Wars back in 1977. The flight between islands is shown through the hoary device of a map with a dotted line plotting the course. Editor Kevin Tent, who worked on two of Payne's previous films, Sideways and About Schmidt, is no novice, but it sometimes looks as if he's trying out the various transitions on Final Cut Pro.

This hammy quality is compounded by the early scenes' reliance on Clooney's voice-over. The film is adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel, and it feels as if entire paragraphs have been dropped into the script. Clooney delivers his expositional narration for minutes on end, talking to himself while providing us with chapters of background and context: "This deal will make us all very, very rich. I alone hold all the cards." The film's first half hour plays almost like an illustrated audiobook.

Clooney observes, while gazing out of an aeroplane window, that the group of scattered islands reminds him of his family, together but apart. It's a promising metaphor - perhaps exhausted by Joanna Hogg's Archipelago last year - but the shots of Hawaii remain, for the most part, attractive packaging. What saves the film, then, are the scenes in between, where we focus on the characters; the scenes where Payne has the good sense to simply put two or more members of his consistently strong cast in the same room, and show us what happens next.

The chemistry between Clooney and his co-stars slowly warms the film, infusing each interaction with an infectious energy, and giving the dialogue a snappy whip-crack. It's not Clooney as troubled father Matt King but newcomer Nick Krause as teenager Sid who first brings things to life: tagging along with the family drama, he is at first outrageously irreverent as an internet troll, but through a key scene with Clooney, where his stoner humour is revealed as a defence against family troubles, he goes instantly from punchable to huggable.

Moments of this kind are what an audience will remember; startling, sad moments where social masks slip and elemental feelings show through. Shailene Woodley, as Matt's elder daughter Alexandra, lets out her grief underwater, her scream trailing bubbles through drifting dead leaves. Robert Forster - always a joy to watch, and wasted since Jackie Brown - leans down in secret to stroke his daughter's hair, with the camera spying on him through a half-open door. There are raw portraits of emotional pain from Judy Greer as a betrayed wife, and 11-year-old Amara Miller as Matt's youngest daughter. Although Clooney plays his role as a dad for comedy, stumbling and jogging through each scene in yet another blue-Hawaiian-shirt-and-tan-chinos combo, at one point he shows the steel that made him a commanding leading man; when he confronts smarmy estate agent Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), the other man's glib smile turns immediately upside down into a sad grimace.

Hawaii, despite the opening voice-over's claims, still looks like a paradise. But it's the cast that make this movie. Like a real family, their chemistry involves a sparky clash of elements; the results can be ugly or shocking, but there are also flashes of dynamite.

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