Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Descendants

Andre Malraux wrote a famous memoir called Anti-Memoirs.  Anti can be used in the same way in talking about Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. Payne posits an anti-hero in an anti-paradise who by the end of the movie steps into the shoes of his heroic ancestors by restoring the paradise that was their legacy. George Clooney’s Matt King is the scion of an aristocratic Hawaiian family. The Kings are the repository of a huge stake of pristine real estate which is about to be sold off, producing a tremendous windfall for both Matt and the clan of relatives he represents. But King doesn’t exude the confidence of his social and material position. In fact, he’s spent his life  compensating for his good fortune both by overwork and by living well below his means. Similarly, the Hawaii in which he resides is a far cry from paradise. It’s a place where everything literally seems to be smaller rather than larger than life. The enormous real estate transaction which hangs over the movie like a dust cloud or tropical storm comes on the heels of a freak accident which has put Matt’s wife Elizabeth into a coma. King is an intentionally inchoate creation who has yet to wake up. His is a role which is not easily defined since it has yet to be and Clooney meets up with the challenge, as do the other actors in Payne’s troop who play Matt’s two daughters  the l7 year old Alexandra (Shailene Woodly) and the l0 year old Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra’s slow witted but fast talking  boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause). At the beginning they are four characters in search of an author, but by the end of the movie the stamp of “earned” can easily be placed on the emotions they embody.  Pure melodrama is always lurking as a pitfall in a film where one of the central players is a comatose woman on  a ventilator. But Payne mixes up his own cocktail made up of  pathos, turning to humor and violence begetting empathy. Emotions turn on a dime and when in the end Matt says “lovely Elizabeth, my friend, my pain, my joy” you believe he is capable of mourning the fickle and unfaithful woman he has reviled, but still plainly loves.

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