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Movie Review: The Descendants

Nov 252011
 By , November 25, 2011

“The Descendants” | a film review by Gary Chew

What’s a dashing Hollywood liberal doing in a movie for which Kelsey Grammer might have been better suited? Hopefully, the answer won’t take long.

George Clooney goes Republican — almost. In his anguished but still kind of cute role playing a middle-aged guy about to become a widower (but not yet), he resembles President Obama: a very nice, smart, successful man with two lovely daughters but, unfortunately, a wife who’s hanging to life by the very thread of a deep coma after traumatizing her skull water sporting.

Matt King (Clooney) has just gotten the news from his wife’s physician that the prognosis is grave: no chance for her pulling out of the deep slumber. The doctor advises that Matt quietly and appropriately inform friends and family members, close and extended, that the end is soon and if any wish to visit Elizabeth’s room for last moments with her, it’s certainly recommended.

The King character was described by early promotional material for “The Descendants” as a land baron from a generational family. King, who has the same name as the fabled and legendary but real ranch and oil family of South Texas — Kingsville and all — seems less a land baron than a cool dad prone to at-home foibles with his teenage daughter and her little sister. The “land baron” seems more like a really wealthy, nice and endearing guy. Hey, sort of like George Clooney — but with kids.

President Obama should like this movie. But wait, there’s more. Matt King and his family are longtime native Hawaiians (with Caucasian ancestry). You know…Hawaii, our 50th state, where some still don’t believe that the President was born? What a great progressive film concept.

Alexander Payne, Rex Pickett and Jim Rash have adapted it from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Mr. Payne directed. He also directed one of my very fave movies of recent times: “Sideways.” So good watching all that California wine tasting.

Matt and his family of cousins stand to make more millions with the sale of virgin coastal land on Kauai. They’ve owned it for generations. The possible big sell will take place soon after the Kings take a vote on it. Matt’s the financial go-to guy of the gilded King tribe, but such an agreeable and lawyerly money boss he is.

“The Descendants” goes more soapingly operatic when Alexandra King, the older daughter, lays it on her father that Elizabeth, the wife and mother, was doing some guy right there in town, behind Matt’s back. Whoa, we could be headed “Six Feet Under” here. But…

…then “The Descendants” innocuously veers in the direction taken by “Pulp Fiction.” Not to worry though, it quickly avoids that option as the shaken Matt readjusts his thinking about stalking the guy who cuckolded him not long before Elizabeth’s tragic accident. Matt isn’t out for blood, though. He just wants to know what the guy looks like, then nestle down in his anguish, pouring over why his wife could do such a thing. Matt is also enough of a putz to try to find whether or not his terminally injured wife really loves the interloper.

Alexandra, played by Shailene Woodley, steps further into the movie, helping her dad impart the sad tidings. Alex’s sooper-dooper dude friend, Sid, tags along for comedic relief when the going really gets grave. Nick Krause does the Sid role… entertainingly. And thank goodness we got well-played Hawaiian guitar pickin’ on the soundtrack. It remains mostly pleasant and maybe a little too perky if you think about Mrs. King in the ICU.

Exposition for Matt’s character is underwritten early on by showing the relationship between him and younger daughter Scottie, played by Amara Miller. Ms. Woodley and Ms. Miller add spark to the lighter moments and are perfect to feel sympathy for during the unhappy ones…not unlike Mr. Clooney in his role, in case you haven’t figured that out.

But wait, there’s a hippie cousin in the King family who’s as rich as anybody else, even though he has long hair. Cousin Hugh is played by Beau Bridges in that come-what-may, laissez-faire kind of Bridges’ fashion Beau and his little bro Jeff do so well. All that liberalness they get from their late great father… actor Lloyd Bridges, it’s been told.

More than “Sideways” I’d align “The Descendants” closer to a film that Alexander Payne didn’t help write or direct. Have you ever seen Kevin Kline and Kristen Scott Thomas in “Life as a House?” Both “Life” and “The Descendants” wallow excessively in death in a comfortable family, covert sex and the kids…each film shot next to that wide and beautiful Pacific Ocean that sits off the coasts of Hawaii and California, where Barack Obama and Richard Nixon were born, respectively.

If you can’t afford a week in Hawaii, purchasing an admission to see “The Descendants” might do the trick. In that event, the film would also act as a travelogue. Lovely scenery.

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Gary Chew was a classical music host, programmer and producer on Capital Public Radio’s KXPR 88.9FM, Sacramento for 18 years. He retired in January 2007. Read more about Gary's long and storied career here.

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  • 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.
    Check out mine when you get the chance.