Monday, March 5, 2012

Sarah's Review of The Descendants

A woman is water-skiing. The screen cuts to black and the credits and music that will dog us through The Descendants starts up. The opening shot is both stark and nostalgic: the face of a woman expressing an irrepressible joy from living a reckless moment perfectly. It feels like it is being shot by a loved one, the lighting is not quite right, the white balance seems off, the angle odd, a little too intimate somehow.

The credits cardstock cut to the hospital. A wife in a coma, a husband feeling responsible for his neglect of her, making promises, if only she will come back to the land of the living, herein opens The Descendants. A camera lingering on the face of a bespectacled George Clooney as he bargains in voice over with his god. We are pretty sure it’ll all be for naught and the voice over helps to secure this sense of things. Movies with stars of Clooney’s stature that start with voice over can only mean one thing: there are going to be lots of pretty shots, lots of music, tear-jerking moments and a lesson for all.

The film is largely set on Hawaii (I think), there are a couple of oddly placed mapping graphics to show us what island is being hopped between, throughout the action and I think one that is important, to the lineage of this family of descendants, is on Kauai. The cinematography is fantastic but, as filmable landscapes go, Hawaii is both a treasure and a star; screwing it up would be pretty hard to do.

So the plot is loosely strung together, catamaran style on two pontoons. Both stories headed in the same direction and both held down at the centre by George Clooney’s character called Matt King. The story traces Matt’s roots on the island, and the power and prestige this lineage has bestowed upon him and his wide array of largely freeloading cousins. Both pontoons of this catamaran enact the same theme: betrayal. On the left pontoon, which we will call “the wife”, there is the betrayal enacted upon him and on the right pontoon, which we will call “the land”, is the betrayal that he is enacting on others. On both sides this boat floats on property, chattels and how we deal with them.

We are given to understand that for all of his weaknesses as an absent father and husband, and as an unapologetic capitalist, that he is otherwise drawn to behaviour that is laudatory, and which can best be summarized in this paraphrase of one of his many voice overs about himself:

“I think my kids should have just enough money to know that they have to continue   
to work their asses off, and like my father, I have not touched any of the principle
income laid out in this trust that I oversee, instead I sit at my desk eating salad from
Tupperware even as my wife lies dying at the hospital.”

This is a small film with pretensions not to be. While I thought Clooney strong in it, it was his eldest daughter (Shailene Woodley) that really took the performance honours. And while the writing of these two stories did add up to a boat that floats it was, I think the pretensions of it being about something big almost sink it. It is not in it spelling any of this out. It is in the atmospherics. Perhaps Murakami fans would love this film. All the unsaid, un-enacted, stuff might just be what a spirit saturated by meaning might need. I don't know. Because from my perspective it was a very thin script with a lot of portent filled music and lingering shots.

Thoughout I kept drifting off into why this film? And my conclusions are as follows: America is being lead by a man – Barack Obama - who hails from this place. His authenticity as an American is constantly under siege. In the first instance he is of mixed heritage (so too is Matt King) and this film seems to take on how Hawaii is “othered” by the rest of America. This movie appears to act a post-card for how Hawaii is America  - just like the rest of the country(!)  - but with a difference! (And the –um – random introductory shots of homeless Hawaiians is not what I am talking about here or - in my estimation – should it have been what the filmmakers were talking about either…

I think they wanted us to take away that while the same as “you”, here indigeneity is part of the story, and that without honouring this indigeneity this state would lose its particular cultural references. And so it is “other” but “the same”, but it is better because it still holds the possibility of maintaining its ideals and its sense of itself - as flawed and betrayed as its citizenry is when we meet them at the outset of the film. It acts as a morality tale for how the citizenry are complicit in its own betrayal but that there remains an opportunity –even today(!) –to stand up and confront this betrayal. There is an opportunity for a new truth-energized “family” steeped in the lies of yore, to consciously move forward into the future. And on this level it does a pas à deux with Obama and tells a heartfelt tale about the possibility of healing in America.

I did not think this was a great film. It is too small to be great. But it intrigued me enough to try to figure out why it was made. I decided not to do a spoiler in this review. It is – after all – academy nominated so a bunch of people might see it and the revelation (on the wife pontoon) is good enough not to blow it, and so too is the revelation on the land pontoon. Perhaps what makes me still feel warm about the film is that it is up front about its examination of property. But beyond this…it is the pretty pictures that kept me going. Two annoying things: George Clooney’s walk in his high wasted pants and the insipid music choices. It felt like George Clooney might have jumped the shark a little on this one. Or maybe he just jumped the giant tuna because – after all – he is George Clooney.

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