Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The Descendants

Matt King is a haole with Hawaiian blood that goes back a number of generations, and he is the trustee of 25,000 acres of nearly pristine land on Kauai that has been in his family for all of those years. As a successful lawyer, he is imminently qualified to determine the course of action to be taken with respect to which bid the family should accept when the time comes to sell that land. As a husband and father, he is less successful. He is a prudent, careful numbers guy, and not so much of a family man. When his wife suffers a severe head injury in a boating accident and goes into a coma, he finds himself in the position of having to care for two young daughters he barely knows. He has expended so much effort over the years to provide for his family that he has taken for granted that they will always be there for him, even though he is rarely there for them. Though he seems pretty well put together on the surface to outsiders, he’s actually sort of mess to the people who really know him.

I have a hard time buying George Clooney in this role—had a hard time buying it even as the film went on—but by the end, director and co-screenwriter Alexander Payne had me mostly convinced. He shot the film in cinemascope, to ensure good, tight close-up shots, and that’s probably the key to the film. The sometimes breathtaking location shots are very pretty to look at, but the story is another matter altogether. By way of those close-up shots, Payne forces the audience to look at Matt King as he begins to see the things he has refused to look at for so many years. The dynamics of dysfunction drive the narrative, as tragedy forces the characters to confront truths they seem always to have preferred to ignore.

The hardest part for me was trying to see the film through the eyes of someone who has not read the novel. I read the novel a few weeks ago, and thought it was quite good. Author Kaui Hart Hemmings (who makes a cameo in the film) does a good job of getting to the heart of the things that drive us most crazy about the people we’re supposed to love the most. She does this by writing in first person present tense, which allows Matt King to describe to the reader both what is going on currently, and what led those things to happen. It’s a fine device for a novel, and Hemmings deploys it skillfully, but it’s difficult to bring to the screen, because much of what informs the story is in the main character’s head. That generally translates into voice-over narration, and that is the case here.

And it’s not as though Payne doesn’t do a good job with what he has given himself to work with. In fact, pretty much everything in this film is done very well; I’m just not sure that there’s enough of it. Clooney eases into a role that’s one step removed from the kinds of roles that he steps into with ease—Ryan Bingham in Up In the Air, Danny Ocean, the eponymous Michael Clayton—but by the end of the film, he has mostly nailed it. Matthew Lillard wasn’t as bad as I thought he was going to be. I kept picturing Stu from Scream, but he’s aged fifteen years since that film came out, just like the rest of us. He’s not the actor that Clooney is, but he does just fine in a relatively small role. Shailene Woodley does well in the role of Alex, Matt King’s eldest daughter. She is away at school when we join the story, and the circumstances of that situation are never fully revealed. Woodley plays her as the teenage rebel we presume that she is, but she also shows us with Alex’s guard down, at times when the defiant young woman is overcome by emotions she hardly knew were there.

That’s where I have the most trouble seeing the film through the eyes of someone who hasn’t read the novel. Most of the characters feel vaguely incomplete, which makes it difficult to connect with them emotionally. Too much of the time, I got the feeling that Payne was relying on plain vanilla social conventions to generate emotion and drama. We should feel sadness and sympathy for someone who is in a coma and is probably going to die; we should feel anger and resentment at the prospect of marital infidelity; we should feel consternation (but also, of course, love) for children who buck authority wantonly and often fail to do what they are told; and we should feel contentment when, in the end, people do the right things.

All of those things are lovely and noble; but in and of themselves, they are not interesting. I didn’t quite feel a strong enough connection to these characters to become emotionally invested in what was happening to them—at least not as contrasted with the masterful way Hemmings dissects the same characters and lays them bare for the reader to examine. By way of example, there is a scene toward the end in which a piece of very bad news is related to King’s youngest daughter; but instead of letting the scene play out, with the attendant pain and awkwardness, Payne gives us the scene in a muted montage, avoiding, as he does throughout the film, the hardest things that these characters have to face.

I wonder if the characters might have felt more developed if Payne had used a few more strategic bits of voice-over or allowed the characters to talk to each other a little more in the quiet moments—rather than using so many lingering shots of the landscape. Matt King’s character explains in voice-over, early in the film, that even though Hawaii is beautiful, it has its bad neighborhoods and dirty streets and downtrodden citizens, just like the other forty-nine states; but this bit of exposition is a bait-and-switch. Those parts of Hawaii undoubtedly exist; but they have nothing to do with this story, just as Hawaii itself, both as a place and as a concept, has far less to do with the story than Payne seems to believe. He has constructed a fine—but not great—film, but only a fair adaptation.

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