Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Descendants, ineffectual American family saga set in offshore Hawai

Director Alexander Payne who has made The Descendants with George Clooney in the lead also made About Schmidt with Jack Nicholson. What saved that movie was Nicholson's brilliant performance. It looks like Payne wanted to move away from the pathos of loneliness he showed in Schmidt to idyllic Hawai islands with its lush tropical beauty. The family bonding that he seemed to be looking for and perhaps found it difficult to find in mainland, contemporary America he wanted to find in distant, offshore Hawai. But the story he tells in The Descendants is not that too that deep, not even impressive. As Mat King (Clooney) faces a tragic moment with his unfaithful wife in a come and literally on a death-bed, he discovers the value system and emotional bonding he seems to have neglected while pursuing a successful legal career.
What Payne is not able to show is that what Mat is struggling for is that sense of community in the family of which he and his flock of cousins inherit along with a vast swathe of land. The dilemma of retaining the land as a mark of the family system does not come through effectively enough. His coming to terms with the wife's infidelity, and how he turns his cuckold status into a heroic one of standing up for family does not come through.
What comes through quite well however is the father and daughters finding each other, which has its tender moments after the usual loud display of symptoms of dysfunctional mainland American family. Payne succeeds to a certain extent in capturing visually the family by showing father, daughters and elder-daughter's boyfriend walking in a row, or abreast or standing together at the crest of a hill overlooking the beach or simply sitting together in the hospital room or at home. These are wonderful, even heart-rending, non-verbal scenes of warmth, affection and deep love.
Clooney's adorers -- mainly his female fans -- can find no fault with what he does and does not do. There is no doubt that he has portrayed the role of a lonely man recovering his family bonding with characteristic understatement. But the intensity and depth are missing. He seems to be a man with reasonable sentiments. Nothing seems to shake him, not even the tragedy in his life. He behaves like a film hero, ready to take things with good humour and without fuss.
Shailene Woodley who plays the elder daughter and Amara who plays the younger one make the movie quite watchable.
As Oscars always go for movies which stress American values, especially family and country, there should be a tough fight for the awards between The Descendants and J.Edgar.

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