The Descendants

People tend to jump to conclusions about certain destinations. If I say Paris, your imagination has you heading straight to the top of the Eiffel Tower, possibly while holding a baguette. Mention New York City, and you immediately think Broadway and the fact that there is no way you are getting a ticket to The Book of Mormon for at least six more months. Plan a weekend in Minneapolis and you’re either going to the Mall of America or to hang out with Garrison Keillor. Not sure which one of those is worse.

What if you’ve won a trip to Hawaii?!!! You’re thinking palm trees, sandy beaches, Don Ho and poi, right? So when you hear that The Descendants is set in that tropical paradise, you might tend to think there will be surfing and perhaps a side trip to Pearl Harbor. Which is certainly part of the genius of this film, because there is not a luau to be found anywhere in this fine, engaging family drama. I kind of like it when a film sets up an expectation and then gives you something completely different.

For instance, George Clooney as a distracted, mostly-absent father who finds himself forced to be the primary parent when his wife ends up in a vegetative state. Things that he once ignored, such as his children and the state of his marriage, are now front and center as he tries to cope with the impending loss of his spouse as well as the knowledge that she was cheating on him — information that is helpfully supplied by his older daughter. One of the funniest and most heartbreaking scenes in the film is to watch the once suave and sophisticated Mr. Clooney running frantically down a winding road in a pair of floppy sandals, looking just as foolish as he feels.

Every performance and scene in this films smacks of professionals at the very top of their game. Directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways), Clooney inhabits his character in a way that is as subtle as it is showy. I’ve always been a huge fan of his work, but I think this is the best performance of his career.

The film is funny in an offhanded kind of way, the way life can be when it’s smacking you right up the side of the head, but it also had me weeping by the end. The title refers to Clooney’s relatives, who are about sell 25,000 acres of pristine Kauai beachfront to developers, and the responsibilities we have to our children as well as our past. It reminds us that even people living in paradise get stung by jellyfish once in awhile.

Barf Bag Rating: ZERO BAGS

If you’re interested in how someone who looks like George Clooney could possible be a descendent of a past Hawaiian queen, check out a delightful piece of non-fiction called Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell. The book chronicles the interactions between the royalty who ruled the islands and the missionaries who for some reason felt it was their duty to save them. Fun to read even if you hate poi.

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3 Comments

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  2. Clooney and everybody else included is great but it’s really Payne who shines as the writer bringing out some funny humor but not without forgetting about the real rich moments of human drama. Good review. A good film but not as great as I was expecting.

    • I agree about Payne – I thought Sideways was terrific. (are you chewing gum?!!!)

      I wasn’t expecting to like The Descendants as much as I did, but it definitely tapped into an emotional place for me. He found just the right combination of sorrow, comedy and boredom that comes with the very difficult experience of waiting for someone to die.


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