(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on 29 January, 2012, retrieved from http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/when-farce-turns-tragic)
Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Patricia Hastie, Nick Krause
Director: Alexander Payne
Rating: 5 stars
The opening scene of The Descendants wouldn’t be out of place in a documentary on Hawaii. Neither would the voiceover. Until Matthew King (George Clooney) tells Paradise what it can do with itself.
“How can they possibly think our families are less screwed up, our heart attacks and cancers less fatal, our grief less devastating?” he wonders, looking up from the work he has brought to a hospital.
This is a film about loss – of people, of land. When someone dies, s/he wins. However that person has let you down, you’re the one feeling guilty, you’re the one wishing you’d done all those things you could have. And what if there’s someone left, someone who represents the departed? Does the person left behind become the target of your anger, or the symbol of your forgiveness?
What seems to be a simple family drama about a father trying to reconnect with his daughters is, on another level, an allegorical tale of the bond between man and land. An impending death, an affair, a substance abuse problem and a taste for explicit vocabulary are at the heart of this dysfunctional family’s story. Meanwhile, a larger family, descended from a banker and Princess, must figure out what to do with 25,000 acres of inherited land that will soon be tied up in a legal mess. The parallel is brought out in a brilliantly-worded confrontation, where each party picks up on a different layer.
The story follows King, his daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra’s goofy boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) on a mission they hope will resolve the family’s issues. And throughout, you never know whether to laugh or cry.
Skirting maudlin with irony, the film takes a quirky look at the hilarity surrounding tragedy – the stifling concern, the cold pragmatism of organ donations, the eulogising of the sinful, the laying of blame – which could drive you into seeking advice from someone you labelled “retarded”.
What do we get attached to when we lose the things we thought were ours? the movie makes one wonder. Alternating silence with yodelling, Hawaiian songs and American classics, the texture of the film contrives to weave nostalgia and hope together.
The characters are rounded, and the acting nuanced. Clooney’s mastery of his craft shows in his willingness to be directed, his ability to deliver lines as if he’d thought them up. It’s hard to believe this man once wore a purple bodysuit and indigo chastity belt, as he dashed around Gotham City with his...ahem, rainbow ally.
Verdict: I can’t think of a single drawback. This film is, to me, perfect.