Sunday, 22 January 2012

Taking sideways with "The Descendants"

I always considered having to watch the line-up of the Oscars potentials a necessary evil. One wants to remain relevant to what is going on in Hollywood and since these films will be the most talked-about flicks for the next couple of months it becomes an unfortunate obligation to watch them.

There was however some hope in Alexander Payne’s latest film The Descendants. Mostly because of Payne’s previous movie Sideways which impressed audiences around the world when it was released in 2004. My personal wish was for The Descendants to prove the same cinematic qualities as Sideways, and according to the initial reception by the critics, Payne’s latest film had a fair chance to even outdo his previous flick.

The film tells a story of Matthew King, a middle-aged lawyer living with his family on the island of Oahu. After an unfortunate boat accident, his wife is put on life support and the remaining members of the family are forced to pick up the pieces and learn how to move on without her. It is a dialogue-driven story that takes us on an emotional journey through Matthew King’s mourning process. Yet for a story about death, there is an awful lot of laughter in Payne’s film. As if the director did not want to spoil the beautiful landscapes of Hawaii with a gloomy narrative, he turns for humour in places where jokes aren’t necessarily needed.

There is very little that can be said about the story arch and the character development. All of it seems so scripted and predictable that it becomes un-sport like to point out every single weakness in this review. Aesthetically the film is just as disappointing; considering the epic scale of the surroundings in which Payne sets his story, very little of that magnificence is used in the film. Matthew King underlines many times throughout the film how profoundly his family is bound with the land of Hawaii as there is Hawaiian blood that flows through their veins. But nothing in his behaviour suggests such exceptionalism.  His attachment to the land is purely sentimental and apart from the thread relating to King’s real estate deals there is nothing truly substantial tying his story to the Hawaiian heritage. The place of the action might therefore be considered purely coincidental, depriving Payne of his enquiry into King’s family being "the descendants." 

What we are left with is a film that is lacking its raison d’être. A quality that certainly doesn’t disqualify it as an Oscar potential, but makes it unworthy of attention for anyone who sees beyond the awards season.

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