Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Descendants (Clooney, the modern Cary Grant?)

George Clooney has the charm and looks to play a typical ladies man, but he never does. He always chooses to play his roles with a dark sense of humor, a sly wit, as if he is winking at the audience. Clooney doesn't take himself too seriously and therefore creates an even more attractive character, a character that lets the audience in rather than alienating them to admire him from afar.  Another actor who had this ability and did it better than anyone was the immortal Cary Grant.  Never has this characteristic been more present than in George Clooney's role as Max King in director Alexander Payne's The Descendants.
Payne is known for dark comedies that border on tragedy: Election (1999, Reese Witherspoon, Matthew Broderick), About Schmidt (2002, Jack Nicholson), and Sideways (2004, Paul Gimatti and Thomas Hayden Church). His films deal primarily with men who are very very flawed and are somehow seeking, although not always successfully, some sort of redemption and peace of mind. Max King opens the film with his narration; " My friends on the mainland think that just because I live in Hawaii, I live in paradise. We're all just out here sipping Mai Tais, shaking our hips, and catching waves. Are they insane? Do they think we're immune to human life?"

Max King is a descendant of one of Hawaii's first white land owning families (his great great grandmother was Hawaiian and his great great grandfather, white). He faces a decision about whether to sell his land to tourist and condo development, therefore making his large collection of broke relatives rich, or hold on to the sacred integrity of the virgin land. While this is happening Max faces a traumatic crisis with his wife who, as of 23 days ago, has slipped into a coma after a tragic boating accident. He is faced with the realization that his wife is not going to recover, and that she has left instructions in her will to be taken off of life support.
Max is left with the task of informing all of their friends and relatives about her death. He recruits his two dysfunctional daughters Alexandre (17) played by Shailene Woodley and Scottie (10) played by Amara Miller to come along for emotional support.  As this task is set in motion Max finds out that his wife was having an ongoing affair right up until her accident. If it seems as though I am giving too much away, I assure you I am not. This is all set up very quickly and the rest of the film deals with what follows. There are so many great characters, including Alexandre's boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), who accompanies Max and his daughters throughout the film. There are a couple of scenes where he steals the show.

 Hawaii plays a huge role in the film, not just as a back drop, but really as a central character. Max deals with the sub plot of his connection with the land as he deals with the loss of his wife, and his reconnection with his daughters. Much is to be said for Clooney's ability to work with younger, less experienced actors and really make them shine. He did it with Anna Kendrick in Up In The Air also. She spoke very highly of his coaching and supportive advice during filming. Another actor was known for doing this with his less experienced co-stars, once again Mr. Cary Grant.

Cary Grant made other actors look good, and no one knew what he was doing behind the scenes to accomplish this. Clooney is that kind of actor. We want to watch how everyone reacts to him and what they will do next. This is very rare when dealing with such a high profile celebrity. The relationship between Max and his daughters is adorable, but not simple. He is trying so hard but he just doesn't quite get what it is he is supposed to get from all of this tragedy. He wants to get it, he really does, but like many of us he fumbles awkwardly and blindly trying to figure out what "it" is. 


  1. ok, I liked the movie. firstly, I know hawaii from up close (have family there) and the atmosphere of the nature and society was very well captured. Secondly, Payne is greek descendant and caught between two cultures, so he knows how it feels. thirdly, Clooney IS good and makes it real. Finally, as in all of his movies, you are right, Payne shows the effort to get it and how slippery and translucent this IT, is.

  2. That is interesting about Payne, I did not know he was Greek. Perhaps that informs his work to some degree, The Greek tragedy aspect. You got to the heart of my article with this comment! Thank you for your input and as always for reading.