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The Descendants – Alexander Payne Heart-warming pathos – laid on thick



Family Life




The Descendants – AlexanderPayne

I have laughed as the world ends in a ballet of atomic explosions to the voice of Vera Lynn; at a Knight struggling to fight back having lost both arms, gushing blood, undeterred even when his legs are the next to go; even God help me, once, at a dog humping a cuddly toy. My uneasiest laugh was a manic Scottish absurdist waddling across the stage in front of a very proper audience simulating filling up his incontinence leggings in the style of a teenager showing off his new jeans.

Some humour, jokes, sneak under our buds of taste and make us laugh; guiltily, in spite of ourselves. There may be a comedian or writer able to make Alzheimers funny: but Alexander Payne isn’t he. There is a very small scene inThe Descendants where Hawaii Lawyer (George Clooney), his sporty, active wife Elizabeth comatose following a speedboat accident, is taking his two girls 10 and 17-ish with the latter’s putz boyfriend, to see their mother being artificially kept alive in hospital. Their grandparents arrive to come with them and grandma is obviously out of it with Alzheimers. She has to be introduced to her own grandchildren and when told she is going to see ‘Elizabeth’ says she must put on a new dress to meet the Queen of England. Cue boyfriend to laugh moronically.

How hard up for a laugh, for a bit of pathos do you have to be to write the Alzheimers into this scene? It’s the only spoken appearance of grandma in the film: she’s just there for the ‘laugh’ and to layer more easy emotion into the narrative. And there’s the rub: I felt like an alien from another planet in the cinema when several people were corpsing uncontrollably around me. Yeah I know about nervous laughter but that wasn’t all of it.

Alexander Payne who wrote and directed is the most emotionally manipulative film-maker I know; loading emotional possibilities into every event, situation, character and response – hence the Alzheimic granny. This is pretty clear from his earlier films About Schmidt which I hated; and even Sideways which I liked a lot.

After being thrown from a speedboat Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie) ends up in an irrecoverable coma. Her smiling face opens the film and inert body tweaks the heartstrings throughout. (Hastie* has more screen time than many talking parts). Husband Matt (Clooney) heads up an extended, old Hawaii family with 120,000 acres of prime land that will make them all rich if Matt agrees to sell.

Business has made Matt pretty much an absentee dad and husband which hits home when he now has to look after Scottie (Amara Miller) and teenage Alex (Shailene Woodley). Scottie is acting up in her grief and Alex is not only at that rebellious stage but has laid back, chilled out boyfriend ‘yo-bro’ Sid in tow. Recovering his place at the centre the family he had taken for granted, Matt faces a further set-back when he discovers Elizabeth had been having an affair. Alex knew, hence her hostility, so she helps him discover that his rival was local realtor Barrie Speer.

When told Frances won’t recover and in accordance with her living will, they will have to disconnect life support, Matt decides to call all their friends together and gives an emotional speech asking them all to go to say goodbye to her. He decides he has to seek out Speer to satisfy his curiosity, confront him and to tell him about Frances so he too can goodbye. (Odd kind of affair where the lover doesn’t know his inamorata is in a coma – but there you go).

Alex insists on coming so Scottie and Sid tag along on the strangest ‘holiday’ ever to another island. They find Speer and his wife Julie and their two kids renting a cottage owned by one of Matt’s many cousins. Speer turns out to be a jerk with a crocodile smile, who just had an extra-marital fling and is terrified his wife will find out. He is also linked to the buyer of the Trust acreage and stands to make a fortune if Matt and the Trust sell.

The Kings return for a tearful farewell to mom having now I suppose bonded through shared adversity. This includes Sid who apparently has more brain cells than are readily apparent; and who has of course, as this is Alexander Payne, also lost his father six months before.

Yes it’s sad; and endearing; and touching. You may even shed a little tear. But Attila the Hun couldn’t fail to jerk a few tears given a tragically injured young mother turned into a vegetable and facing a lingering death; a grieving little girl; an angry teenager who can’t now say sorry; a boyfriend himself grieving; and a granny with Altzheimers. We only needed a tsunami to have a full set.

Matt makes an unexpected decision about the land with just enough unconvincing lines about respect for one’s heritage and forebears to justify the film’s title and the film rolls gently to a close.

Just as with Jack Nicholson in Schmidt, Payne has cast Clooney here against type: as a character as unlike the real George as can be imagined. Again, like black-eyed Jack, George will be called ‘brave’ for playing a bit downbeat, deadbeat, wearing a few unflattering clothes and having his hair long enough to let the grey show. To me he looks uncomfortable throughout, with his character, his kids and the emotions Matt, as written, experiences. Towards the end there is a scene where he has a Trust business meeting to decide what to do: here, in a business context, as the guy in charge – Clooney for the first time looks at home, comfortable in his skin, authoritative. The family stuff is pretty much rescued by Shailene Woodley’s excellent feisty Alex aided by Nick Krause’s nicely timed putz turned philosopher – Sid.

Of Sideways I said “is pathos enough to drive a movie? I’d always thought of pathos as a bit like happiness: something that happens when you are pursuing something else. In Sideways, as in Schmidt, it is as if director Payne is aiming for pathos at the outset.” The Descendants poses the same question again for me. Also like those two movies Payne doesn’t seem to decide whether he was making an emotional drama or a comedy – to the puzzlement of the audience and detriment of both.

The Descendants offers a slightly odd though blandly enjoyable couple of hours. It has ‘gimme an Oscar’ written all over it. Please no.

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