Monday, November 28, 2011

BuboBlog Reviews 'The Descendants'

(Thanks to grandparent babysitting, we were able to sneak away to a movie this weekend. It's been four months since seeing my last movie in the theater. I'll try to improve on this record as the Oscar contenders begin getting released.)

Like a lot of people, I had high hopes for "The Descendants." How can you go wrong? It stars George Clooney, the picture is directed by Alexander Payne (his first feature since 2004's "Sideways"), and it promises to show a side of Hawaii rarely glimpsed by tourists. "The Descendants" also has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 91.

Clooney plays Matt King, whose family stands to gain a fortune from the sale of a large parcel of undeveloped land on Kauai. He's the trustee in charge of approving the deal, leaving the hopes of his numerous cousins in his hands. Complicating matters: His wife is comatose after a boating accident, and he has two out-of-control daughters.

He soon discovers two things about his wife: (a) she's going to die (b) before her accident, she had planned to leave him for another man. While grieving and trying to corral his daughters, King embarks on a quest to find the paramour.

That setup leads to some poignant moments (how could it not?) and a fairly interesting plot, especially as King discovers that his wife's lover is more intertwined with his family saga than he realized. And as always, Clooney is great.

But the film is muddled and doesn't have the payoff it should have. It doesn't help that "The Descendants" begins with a clunker of a voiceover. The first few scenes consist of heavy narration, interspersed with bits of dialogue. At some point, the voiceover drops out of the film altogether, so you have to wonder if it wasn't added because audiences had trouble understanding what was going on. That kind of jury-rigged filmmaking is never a good omen.

I didn't really buy King's pursuit of his wife's lover, at least not in the way it was depicted. And the question of why she wanted to leave him in the first place goes unanswered. (The film doesn't really shine any light on King's character defects.) Side note: Was it an inside joke to have Judy Greer play a character named Julie Speer? Just wondering.

In the end, King makes a decision about the land deal that I suppose makes sense — it speaks to the film's theme of reconnecting with family. But it felt a bit arbitrary. And his making peace with the death of his wife was unsatisfying, since the audience lacked enough insight into their marriage, both in terms of what made it special and what made it fail.

I did love the view into the everyday lives of Hawaiians — something so seldom shown on screen. It's worth noting, though, that these are mainly white Hawaiians (King's family is meant to be descended from a Hawaiian princess, but the bloodline is clearly diluted by his generation). I suppose the real breakthrough would be to see a mainstream film about Hawaiian Hawaiians.

BuboBlog Rating: 2.5 asterisks (out of 4)