The Descendents

The Descendents, directed and co-written by Antony Payne, has garnered high praise, but I was not all that impressed by it. It is a so-so family comedy/drama that aims for moments of emotional catharsis and falls short each time. Matt King (George Clooney) is a lawyer living in Honolulu. His wife, Elizabeth, is left in a coma after a motorboating accident. A doctor tells Matt that the coma is permanent and that according to Elizabeth’s living will they must take her off life support. Matt is left to take care of his two daughters, Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), whom he has largely ignored up until now. Matt learns from Alex that Elizbeth was having an affair during the months before the accident. Matt becomes obsessed wit the idea of finding the man she was sleeping with, Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). When he learns that Brian is on the island of Kaua’i, Matt goes there, dragging along his daughters and, inexplicably, Alex’s boyfriend, Sid (Nick Krause), who says incredibly stupid things.

This film has a subplot that is slightly more interesting than the story of Matt’s stalking of Brian. Matt and his extended family of cousins are all descendents of a Hawaiian princess who married a white man (hence the film’s title). They have inherited a large tract of land on Kaua’i, which is held in trust. They are negotiating to sell the land to a developer, although some members of the family are opposed to this. Matt initially supports the sale, but he eventually decides against it. He realizes that he wants the land to remain pristine.

This film has some funny moments, but it also has overwrought “dramatic” speeches, many of them addressed to Elizabeth’s comatose body. (There are numerous close-up shots of Elizabeth’s face, the purpose of which is not clear to me.) This film might have worked better as a straight comedy, rather than as a “comedy/drama”.

In between scenes there are numerous shots of the beautiful Hawaiian countryside, with Hawaiian music playing on the soundtrack. Payne apparently thought that he should continually remind us that the story takes place in Hawaii. The effect is as though you were watching a travelogue. I was reminded of those old travel films I watched on Saturday afternoon TV when I was a kid. (And now we come to the enchanted land of Hawaii, with its happy natives…) One thing these shots do is pad out the film: it is almost two hours long. A feeling of exhaustion starts to set in towards the end. I began wishing that Elizabeth would hurry up and die, so the whole thing would finally be over. Does this make me a bad person? I prefer to think I am just a frustrated moviegoer.

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