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  • Dec 18, 2014
  • Updated: 3:54pm

The Descendants

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 January, 2012, 12:00am

Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Robert Forster, Amara Miller
Director: Alexander Payne
Category: IIB

About a quarter of the way into The Descendants, the film's protagonist, Matt King, a Hawaiian lawyer who also runs a trust that owns a lot land on the island of Kauai - is told of his now-comatose wife's infidelity by his daughter.

Shocked, he runs out of the house down the street in his flip-flops past a street marked with a 'No Outlet' sign and turns a corner to confront his best friends, whom he suspects must know about the affair.

It's a key scene in Alexander Payne's latest outing partly because it provides a platform for his star, George Clooney, to show yet again that he relishes playing on-screen fools. The scene is also a vital component in this adaptation of a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings; it's the point at which King, a dull guy who doesn't feel much for his family or job, seemingly reconnects with the emotions he has long since buried.

The symbolic street sign helps to gauge how Payne has changed since his first screenplay seven years ago - the Oscar-winning road-movie Sideways. Payne is in a mischievous mood here by acting defiantly non-mischievous; so it is that King has seemingly got out of his emotional cul-de-sac, there's no sign of a histrionic spitting of venom, a seismic shift in his worldview, or the plotting of some ugly act of vengeance.

When he finally arrives at his friends' house, he actually has to wait for his turn to ask questions only after they get over a pithy row about something else. The edginess and bitterness that have peppered Payne's previous films has dissipated somewhat, replaced by a sense of tolerance or even warmth in accepting the bad in people and bad turns that emerge in life.

Matt King's opening voiceover, which pours scorn about the common perception of Hawaii as some slacker paradise, is an inward monologue that points to how he reconciles problems within himself. This helps make The Descendants ooze with gentle humour that at times also comes across as quite prickly.

The film's title points to two of Matt's concerns: his pending duty to administer the sale of his inherited swathes of land, and his struggle to fulfil his familial duties again after his wife falls into a coma after a water-skiing accident. The latter seems to be more of a problem for him, as the self-proclaimed 'back-up parent' attempts to reconnect with eldest daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley, above with Clooney) - a rebellious teen - and the younger child, Scottie (Amara Miller), a girl who shows her hospitalised mother's gruesome photographs as part of an art project.

The two threads in The Descendants eventually converge partly because of Matt's discovery of his wife's affair, but as is typical of Payne's films, reaching a conclusion isn't the most important thing.

Instead, it's the journey itself that is the revelation as Matt struggles on the way to finally rediscovering his reason for living.

The Descendants opens today

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