Alexander Payne’s follow-up to Sideways, The Descendants, is a George Clooney vehicle set in the Aloha State that managed to nab a host of Oscar nominations this year. In line with his wryly humored filmography, the picture carefully balances mainstream appeal with serious subject matter, all while presenting it through an over privileged family that audiences should naturally feel disconnected to. But it works, and it works quite well, despite some glaring character flaws that try to shake the tone of the film from its sturdy path.
Like the wino in mid-life crisis in Paul Giamatti of Sideways, Clooney’s Matt has reached an all time low, but unlike Giamatti, his situation is completely out of his hands. He has been left the sole trust holder of his family’s inherited property in Hawaii, and within days he has to either sell the massive plot for a mountain of cash or tell his money hungry relatives that he is keeping the green coastal slopes for he and his family. Meanwhile, his wife (Patricia Hastie) is in a boating accident, has slipped into a comma, and has absolutely no hope of waking up. To top it all off, he finds out that she was cheating on him from his wild-child teenage daughter, Alex (Shailene Woodley). To escape the hospital drama and confront his wife’s lover, Matt flies his two daughters and an estranged numskull boyfriend (Nick Krause), from Oahu to Kauai for a few days. Upon returning home, the family converges on their life-support-free love as they wait for her to pass.
For the majority of the film, Payne’s script is tightly wound, but occasionally his secondary characters stretch a bit too far. Krause in particular has some unbelievably insensitive lines upon his introduction, but he’s accepted into the emotionally intense, personal situation regardless. This initially baffling dynamic injects an abundance of much needed humor, and eventually his meat-head persona practically becomes a surrogate old sage. Clooney, on the other hand, doesn’t miss a beat, handling everything with befuddled acceptance. He is in a daze of worry, guilt, hurt and rage, but all he can do is try to keep up with his girls with a straight face.
Looming over Matt’s chaos laden family is his highly memorialized, inherited plot that serves as a reminder of what is most important. He and his family have always had the secluded land, one of the last areas of Hawaii free of tourists and golf courses, and it takes only a few days with his daughters to realize what must be done. His relationships with them are shaky at best, but with their mother’s passing, the gaps are closed thanks to some careful writing and a pair of superb performances by Clooney, and big screen newcomer, Woodley. Their positively evolving on screen father/daughter chemistry is perfectly played.
Fox really stuffed this package to the brim. It’s Oscar nominee received a Blu-ray release that packs both a DVD and Digital copy, as well as an abundance of worthy extras. The film itself looks stunning with its lush tropical setting and generally beautiful characters. Detail is fine throughout and colors are bright and natural. Much of the soundtrack is traditional Hawaiian music, and it sounds quite lovely within the 5.1 DTS-HD master track. Voices are always crystal clear in the center channel, and occasionally you’ll notice some island ambiance in the rear speakers. The discs themselves come packaged in a standard Blu-ray case with a brightly colored dust jacket.
Despite these two films being completely relevant to the film, they were cut to maintain momentum. One is an extension of the scene where Clooney picks up his daughter Alex from school, and the other is a serious, bonding converstion between the two. Each scene is prefaced by a written intro by Payne.
Everybody Loves George
This is basically a montage of people talking about why they admire Mr. Clooney, and shots of him being silly on set. It’s a solid example of why people do indeed love George.
Working With Alexander
Here, much of the cast and crew lament about the experiences they’ve had with Payne. The piece is bookended with Payne making and describing how to make the perfect omelet.
The Real Descendants
The massive piece of land featured in the film is really owned by a single family that was really passed down to them through seven generations. Here they describe how the land ended up in their hands, how they financially maintain such an estate, and why they have chosen not to sell it themselves.
Baring a somewhat misleading title, this piece lets many of the film’s actors and production staff express their feelings about how the culture and spirituality of Hawaii pervade the experience of working and creating a film there. It starts with footage of the production crew being blessed by a Hawaiian priest. The event sets the tone for a safe, and rewarding process that is steeped in traditional Hawaiian living. They also go on to speak about the Hawaiian language and Pidgin English.
Payne and the producers speak about how they ended up casting each character in the film. Also included are some of the actors discussing the casting process.
Working With Water
The director describes shooting on water as car work on steroids. Here, the water patrol crew is introduced, and each talks about working on the film, and how the many natural factors of working with water can play out. They talk about shots out on the open water as well as the underwater shot in the pool. Surfing legend Laird Hamilton plays a small part in the film, and they speak to him about his involvement as well.
The first video is for Makana’s “Will I Ever See You Again”, and it is composed entirely of shots of the beautiful Hawaiian landscape. The next is for James “Bla” Pahinui’s “Gabby Kai”, and finds its shots mostly in the day to day happenings on the islands. Finding its gaze on the rising sun, the green valleys, and finally the human take over of Hawaii, the last video is for “Honolulu’s Whisper” by DNA. All three songs are instrumental pieces that can be found in the film.
Waiting For The Light
We witness the film crew waiting around for the sunlight to come through for the perfect shot that overlooks the family’s property in the film.
The World Parade – Hawaii (Silent Film)
This might be the most interesting addition to the package. It’s a 10 minute silent documentary style film that shows all the wonderful attractions from back in the day.
A Conversation With Alexander Payne and George Clooney
With no clear structure, this conversation wanders from favorite shots from films, directing drama and comedy, humor within their new film, and even touches on Ozu, Casino and E.R.
With some mellow finger picked guitar underlying the condensed plot, the film looks to be more of a straight drama than it actually is until the halfway point where the paced is picked up, and Clooney runs awkwardly in his clompy shoes. Like the film itself, its built for a broad audience.
It may seem a bit familiar, with all the traditional Hawaiian music and tropical imagery floating about, but this is not Just Go With It or 50 First Dates. Adam Sandler is no where to be found. Zany humor occasionally does sneak its way in, but there are young psyches at stake, with real kinship contention in the balance, and Payne safely guides us along, presenting a heartbreaking story that will surely pull the heartstrings of the masses while constantly tickling that all important funny bone with wit and whimsy.
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