Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Descendants (2011) **

“Friends on the mainland think that living in Hawaii must be like living in Paradise….Well Paradise can go fuck itself.”  These are the words of a guy who is having a really bad time in a really beautiful place.  Matt King (George Clooney) is a well-to-do lawyer whose wife is in a terminal coma after a boating accident.  Their daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) are both acting out, and then Matt receives the bombshell that prior to the accident his wife had been having an affair and had planned to ask for a divorce.  Meanwhile, Matt is the hereditary, legal trustee of a large, extremely valuable hunk of  Hawaiian beachfront.  He and his cousins are all heirs, but he has legal control of the property, and changes to the law have made it necessary for them to sell the place.

Watching Matt sort through all this should be more interesting than it is.  The setup of a failing marriage being interrupted by a coma provides rich emotional grist, and Clooney does an okay job portraying the complex emotions, but the script makes a mockery of the situation.  Matt winds up stalking the real-estate agent with whom his wife was cheating, even following the guy to a different island.  I’m not saying that no one would ever do that, but I don’t think that an intelligent, contained lawyer like Matt King would do something so stupid and useless.  Then the way they have Matt handle the land sale feels very perfunctory and arbitrary.  Finally, the goodbye scene between Matt and his comatose wife is pure dreck, mostly ruining the rest of the movie for me.

There are a couple of bright spots.  Shailene Woodley has gotten a lot of hype, and deservedly so.  She is a beautiful and talented actress and holds her own quite well against George Clooney.  Robert Forster is quite convincing as Matt’s asshole father-in-law.  His character is not really likeable, but the way he handles his grief is convincing.

“The Descendants” also has an important social message in its discussion of advanced medical directives.  These are legal papers that someone prepares detailing what their wishes would be should they ever be severely ill or in a coma, including the conditions under which they would want to be removed from life support.  The decision to withdraw care from Matt’s wife is made much easier for the family because she had an advanced directive.  This is a good message for people to hear.  I wish it could be presented in a better movie.

2 stars out of 5

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