The Descendants, based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, is adapted by writer-director Alexander Payne but without his usual morbidity and nihilism. But in losing these qualities, there are many ways in which this film feels conventional, like the Hawaiian-inspired soundtrack reminding us of the paradise that the source material may be trying to subvert.
There’s the acting, especially from George Clooney, playing the protagonist, a Hawaiian-born and bred man named Matt King, over-narrating the story’s sociopolitical ‘undertones,’ but more on that later. In one of his voice-overs, he asks his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), in a coma after a boating accident, to ‘wake up,’ even if his deadpan delivery of those words inadvertently suggests that it doesn’t matter to him either way. The acting has strong points, especially when each character is reacting towards news that Elizabeth won’t recover and has to be take off life support. When Matt hears the news from a doctor, the former surprises us with glazed puppy dog eyes. Then his older, vulnerable, seventeen year old daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) submerges her head in a leaf-littered backyard swimming pool. Then it’s someone else’s turn, Matt taking on the duties of breaking the news to her family and friends. I’m fully aware that my indifference towards these characters in a time of need makes me seem like I have a heart of stone but the fault is how the movie presents it. The repetition makes me focus on the ritualized state of mourning as opposed to the emotions within the said ritual. Either Payne or the source material doesn’t have a handle on how an event like this affects the story’s many characters, and not enough variation with the who and the how.
These road trips and rituals allow Matt to be around people who think differently on what Elizabeth, a woman with many friends, means to them. But at the same time, it’s as if these people carry the burden of Elizabeth’s loss without any of that emotion transferring to him. A stranger case is Alex’ boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), who stays within Matt’s posse because Alex demands that she’ll be more civil throughout the ordeal. Despite of what Sid says to aggravate Matt, the former stays a few days longer to conveniently redeem himself, telling Matt his approach to take life in stride despite its difficulties and defends the old man against an older man, Elizabeth’s father (Robert Forster). It’s as if Matt’s self-described ‘back-up parent’ disposition is an excuse to keep characters unnecessarily close to him.
Elizabeth’s accident also comes within bad timing, as Matt and his cousins, friendly with each other on the outside, decide on whether and whom to sell 25,000 acres of untouched property inherited from their ancestor, King Kamehameha. This part of the story interests me more, especially with how Matt distances himself from the decision, despite being the land’s trustee. One cousin thinks the transaction is ‘sharing the land with the world.’ Matt also talks condescendingly about the need to sell because of the poorer cousins, personified by Cousin Hugh, who is played by Beau Bridges, using a cheaper version of his brother Jeff’s ‘acting intoxicated’ playbook. He and his ‘pro-sell’ cousins treat this situation smugly because his generation can get rid of a land that seems useless to them. The only dissenting voices against the sale are some cousins who aren’t given lines – those cousins are from experience, the kind who will make a bigger fuss than the placid movie allows them – and Matt’s younger daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) who, when hearing an anecdote from Alex about camping in the property, tells her ‘I want to camp too!’ The movie’s ending awaits for his decision that isn’t really accounted for by his reactions to the voices around him. In both family matters, Matt doesn’t seem to learn anything or change, not because of an outright refusal but because the writing doesn’t give him an option to do so.
The are instances when the movie isn’t lukewarm, the first of which involves the supporting characters talking to Elizabeth. They’re having sincere conversations with someone who can’t talk back. She’s shown in close-ups, her face wan with liver spots, her mouth wide open, the image unavoidably disconcerting yet honest. Everyone says goodbye, including a nice stranger named Julie Speer (Judy Greer). Matt’s farewell is the most poetic yet surprisingly least sincere out of all of them. The other kinds of scenes show a more realistic, Islander’s perspective of Hawaii and its roads, skyscrapers and overpopulation. A last scene shows the family on a small boat, supposedly on a Arcadian ritual until the camera switches to Matt – even from afar they can’t escape the islands’ skyscrapers. Nature is lost and so is the family’s mother, but only if these images were captured by a director and a movie that cared more about them.
The Shiningph. Alliance
Alexander Payne‘s About Schmidt is, to my knowledge, Jack Nicholson‘s third foray into the road trip movie, strangely enough because his earlier two road trip movies went so well for his characters. In the first one, Easy Rider, his character visits American landmarks while in the second one, , makes his character Jack Torrance delve into familial dysfunction in the remnants of native and pioneer civilizations. And we can say that this relatively newer movie has a bit of both.
Payne punctuates the film through Nicholson’s protagonist Warren Schmidt’s epistolary narration to his World Vision-styled adopted Tanzanian 6-year-old Ndugu. Ndugu’s probably has no use of the knowledge of Warren’s woefully mundane life since we assume that he’s evading famine, but at least Warren’s not complaining about being too rich, famous or some other insufferable first world problem. What he writes and what really happens sometimes syncs up, like his retirement forcing him to notice his vehement lack of attraction to his unglamorous wife who is the same age to his devastated state when said dowdy wife dies.
But he’s mostly an unreliable narrator when it comes to his treatment of his wife when she was still alive, keeping the household in shape after her passing to the conditions and sights on the road. Sometimes he’s in between, telling Ndugu that he’s driving on a Winnebago from his residence in Omaha to Colorado to stop his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) from making a terrible decision that she’s regret for the rest of her life. That decision, which he doesn’t tell Ndugu, is her marrying some pyramid scamming schmuck with mulletted gray hair. There’s finally some things that anyone would try to block from memory, like his sexually charged encounters with two women (Kathy Bates) close to his age.
I don’t blame Warren for his lies, equivocations and omissions, since he’s thrust to become a new person and find his new fit into this new age, vulgar, overtly commercialized world, which is hard to do at his age. He wakes and behaves as if disoriented. All he has to do is watch, and it’s for us to find out whether he accepts the inevitable world in which he might not leave a trace. And despite the film’s conventionally sentimental end, the film’s results, along with the four menacing notes on its soundtrack, are deliciously symphonic.
- So It Goes (pd1248.wordpress.com)