Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Descendants

In the middle 80s, Madame Le Chef and I went on vacation to the Hawaiian island of Maui. A travel agent had found us a very reasonably priced hotel. It turned out the good price was because it was in an unfashionable part of the island near the airport and lacked a sea view. On the other hand it came with a free rental car (we just had to pay for the gas). Think how long ago 26 years is. I've just mentioned two things that barely exist anymore, travel agents and free rental cars.

We used the car to drive all over the island and discovered the same thing that millions of other visitors have. Under the typical American layer of highways, subdivisions and malls Hawaii is a tropical paradise. All those millions of visitors haven't destroyed it. And the locals there are living their quotidian lives, like humans everywhere: loving, working, raising children, growing older, dying. In Alexander Payne's, "The Descendants", George Clooney's narration makes this point, early on, in a way that is perhaps too on the nose, but it's a point worth making.

Of course Clooney's character, Matt King, is not a typical local. He's a member of Hawaii's white ruling class and he, and his enormous extended family, own 25,000 acres of undeveloped land on Kauai. It's going to be sold and it will make everyone in the family very rich. That's just one of the things complicating his life. His wife's in a coma. He's been a mostly absent father but now he has to be the parent of their two girls. There are even more complications that I won't go into.

I haven't been a rabid fan of Alexander Payne's films. I liked "Election" but really disliked "About Schmidt", which I thought was condescending. I liked parts of "Citizen Ruth" and of "Sideways". I think "The Descendants" is his best film. It has a few really funny things in it but digs deeper into the stuff of living than he ever has before. Recommended.

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