Plot: Matt King is a land baron and lawyer of mixed race living in Hawaii with his entire family, which includes all his cousins who have settled themselves at different spots around the place. After a freak boating accident, Matt’s wife Elizabeth goes into a coma that may be permanent. Matt has to decide when to unplug her machine, plus he also has to break this news to his family and friends. His two daughters Alexandra and Scottie are out-of-control girls who were brought up mostly by Elizabeth. This makes ‘back-up’ parent Matt’s situation harder, with his elder daughter Alex experimenting with drugs and older boys, and younger one turning more rebellious and crass after the mishap. He also has to decide, along with his cousins, whether or not and who to sell their inherited land before it is taken up by the trust fund.
Review: Descendants will disappoint those expecting a fixed resolution to every theme it tackles, but does life ever bring a complete resolution to every deed committed by man? What solely matters is reconciling with the present and realizing a harmony with people whom we care for and who still co-exist with us. Most viewers, including me at first, were waiting for a big bang in the film where the protagonist Matt King confronts his weaknesses and mistakes and faces a nervous breakdown.
Most wanted King to suffer for neglecting his wife, thus making her lonely and seeking for love outside marriage. But director Alexander Payne doesn’t want to make this the focal point of the story because the affair is now an affair of the past and what is necessary now is to fix the present for a better future.
And Matt’s present has setbacks in the form of two unruly children who face adversity in coping with the present because of their past. Matt King isn’t a terrible husband and father but is rather an irresponsible one; therefore Payne wants us to cheer for him as he attempts to accept his duties as a father. And I feel audiences have this reluctance in embracing this optimism, but they must keep in mind that Elizabeth King’s accident and the revelation itself are the low points in Matt’s life and Payne doesn’t intend to crumble his life further.
The land baron, in a quest to reconcile with his children, also develops virtues such as forgiveness, empathy, righteousness, harmony, something that he had turned indifferent to because of his work and land dealings. His cousins conflict with one another on the matter of selling their sprawling land areas to developers which may reap them vast fortunes. In the beginning Matt describes himself as a stingy man whom the ultimate verdict depends upon but he seems indecisive in the whole matter.
However, as begins understanding himself as a man, a father and a Hawaain citizen, his thinking becomes more resolute, much to the annoyance of his greedy and guileful cousin Hugh. Also, his confrontation with the Brian Speer doesn’t end up in a messy showdown because Matt himself had realized that despite being faithful, he wasn’t devoted to his wife. Plus Speer isn’t the quintessential bad guy set out to ruin others’ lives.
Clooney again shows why he is the most popular American actor; he may not be as versatile as some of his contemporaries but he can play his characters instinctively. He does manage to stoop slightly and walk like a man in his fifties, and also speaks with more restraint and laid-backness which reminded me of an uncle of mine, but most importantly, he hits you with his spontaneous gush of emotions. Like the scene where the doctor tells him about his wife’s helpless condition. Or the times where he is helpless at his daughters’ peevishness. He keeps us on the story’s tracks and therefore we are able to decipher the writer’s/director’s message rather too carried away with the actor’s performance.
The latter happens with stalwart Meryl Streep who can make us forget the film (and its flaws) itself with her heavenly performances. Besides Clooney, the jolly ensemble includes Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller who play two volatile, vacuous teenagers with piercing accuracy, Matthew Lillard who doesn’t overdo his nervous act and also manages to make us laugh, and a whole set of people who bring humanness to the film. Two thumbs up to Beau Bridges for his canny portrayal of glib and specious cousin Hugh. And Sid is the most spaced out guy I’ve seen since Crispin Glover’s bizarre act in River’s Edge.
It is difficult to define the style of the film in set terms but I think the adjectives ‘temperate’, ‘flowing’, ‘bittersweet’, ‘joyful’, ‘optimistic’ can be attributed. The movie progresses like those calm waves with slight ruffles that end up cooling our feet as we stand close to the shore end. It is like the moving hips of a female Hula dancer, gentle and graceful but hypnotic nevertheless.
The color tone of the film itself is so cool, earthy and verdant, you can imagine staying on such an island, sitting casually and care-freely under the shades of a beach-side restaurant or bar, legs stretched out and sipping on a juicy Mai Tai as a local band plays its traditional music in the background.
At such places, even if you are in a volatile state, the ambiance around you itself cools down your volatility. This is also why Payne didn’t go for scenes too intense and painful. The only minor problem I had was the closing scene: King here sits with his two daughters on the couch watching March of the Penguins. I rather wanter King to camp with his daughters and neighbors Kai and Mark at the spot where they had been earlier. I remember Scottie telling her dad how it had been years since they had camped and they share their memories; it would’ve been a fitting ending for the movie.