Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Descendants (Rhoades)

“The Descendants”
Inherit Family Problems

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

A couple years ago my wife and I went to Hawaii with my family. A timeshare swap-out. As we strolled the sandy beaches, hiked lush jungle trails, surveyed pineapple plantations, and watched for whales, we learned very little of the islands’ history. Luaus and hula dances don’t count.
Turns out, these eight islands along with numerous atolls and islets were united under one ruler in 1810.
Originally there were no land titles in Hawaii. The society was feudalistic and all land belonged to the king. But that changed with the “Great Mahele” (division of lands) of 1848. By the time the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown in 1893, large tracts of land had come under the control of “men of European ancestry.”
In “The Descendents,” George Clooney plays one of these land barons. “I have inheritance issues,” he says. “I belong to one of those Hawaii families that make money off of luck and dead people.”
Descended from Hawaiian royalty and American missionaries, Matt King (Clooney) is under pressure from his cousins to sell off the ancestral land to a real estate developer. But he faces a personal trauma when his wife is injured in a boating accident, leaving him to care for his two daughters. An awkward father – “the backup parent” – King tries to reacquaint himself with his offspring but in the process discovers a secret about his wife that sends them on a trip to Kauai to figure out where their life went awry.
Billed as a comedy-drama, Alexander Payne (“Sideways”) directs this film from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. The author expanded her prizewinning short story “The Minor War” into this major debut novel.
“Growing up in Hawaii, I did not constantly think about my Hawaiianness,” she says. “I just thought about how I was going to get beer and where I was going to go surfing….”
Having scooped up five Golden Globe nominations – Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay – “The Descendants” is playing this week at the Tropic Cinema.
Here George Clooney demonstrates his virtuosity, giving a nuanced performance as a middle-aged man in crisis that ranges from hilarious to heartbreaking. Not surprising that he’s getting a lot of Oscar buzz on top of the Golden Globes nod.
Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley play whiny 10-year-old Scottie and rebellious 17-year-old Alex. Shailene picked up her own Golden Globes nod for this on-pitch performance as a teenager being forced to grow up.
Alexander Payne counts off the other members of his cast: “Beau Bridges plays a cousin of Matt King. Matthew Lillard is a lothario. Judy Greer plays the wife of the lothario. Robert Forster is Matt King’s father-in-law. Mary Birdsong is King’s wife’s best friend. Nick Krause is a good friend to Matt’s older daughter. They’re not huge roles. Only Clooney and the girls have big parts. But they’re all important roles.”
As the film’s co-scripter (he won an Oscar for his “Sideways” screenplay), Payne seems comfortable with the topic of bewildered husbands, negligent dads, living wills, and old money at a crossroads. And his two Golden Globe nominations prove it.
As Kaui Hart Hemmings’s book explains, “Minor War” is Matt King’s nickname for the Portuguese man-of-war, a kind of stinging jellyfish. “I called them minor wars because they were like tiny soldiers with impressive weapons – the gaseous bubble, the whip-like tail, the toxic tentacles – advancing in swarms,” says the character.
But Matt King suffers his own minor war with his family. And it’s toxic. But does it have to be? Maybe not, if he can come to terns with the changes in his life.
“The Descendants” reminds you that Hawaii is more than a travel destination. It’s also a place where people live and learn.
[from Solares Hill]

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