THE DESCENDANTS (Alexander Payne, 2011)

Highly reminiscent of The Valley of Decision (Tay Garnett, 1945) starring Greer Garson, Gregory Peck and Jessica Tandy, Alexander Payne’s The Descendants insists it is charting the growth of Hawaiian lawyer Matt King, by which it explains his about-face on the matter of selling for development land that has been in trust to his family for generations. The trouble is, though, that Matt’s change of heart, while it reverses the wrong direction that his selfishness had dictated, appears to come out of nowhere. To say the least, we don’t believe it. Another problem with this comedy-drama, in which the comedy comes off best, is its lugubriousness. I don’t know how long it has been since I’ve seen another tearjerker as relentless as this adaptation of the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. After a while, I could hardly breathe for all the sobbing I was thrust into. There’s very little pleasure to be had in watching this sad, self-pitying and, above all, simplistic “entertainment” about Matt’s coping with his failures as husband, father and land steward while his wife Elizabeth lies in a coma at hospital following a water-skiing accident: a situation fraught with agonizing complexity once Matt learns of Elizabeth’s infidelity, the result of his inattention, and can do nothing to restore their marriage to the fullness of his abiding love for her. In obedience to her living will, Elizabeth’s doctors are about to pull the plug on her. Moreover, Matt has yet to explain to his younger daughter, who is ten, her mother’s imminent fate.
     Despite its Oscar, the script by Payne and two others wobbles between lameness and offensiveness, especially given the borderline-racist Caucasian casting of the native Kings. (The music at least sounds authentic.) By way of compensation, the acting is generally good—with (for me) a genuine shock: Robert Forster is both funny and touching as Elizabeth’s hard-nosed, doting father. George Clooney (best actor, National Board of Review, Golden Globe, Kansas City critics) claims the role of a lifetime—but prepare yourself: with disconcerting skill, for a while he makes Matt almost as passive as the woman in a coma.
     Best film, Los Angeles critics, Florida critics, Kansas City critics, American Film Institute.


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