Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Review: The Descendants (***1/2)

'Descendants' focuses on the life of a family during the days when the mother lies in a coma after a boating accident, poised between life and death. Nothing crashes or blows up on screen, but there are plenty of emotional detonations as her husband and two daughters struggle to meet the challenges and, oddly, the obligations of the unexpected, tragic crisis. This is neither a perfect family nor a perfect mess of a family - it's something in between. They are well off - definitely 1 percenters - live comfortably, and are each very engaged in their lives and communities. The girls, Mom included, are hell raisers to some degree, but in ways that attract more than repel - they each make friends and play well with others, at least some of the time. Yet the members of the family are subtly estranged from each other, and we learn from Clooney's narrative and monologues with his wife's inert form that the marriage was a source of some disappointment for both of them, a disappointment that was not confronted or resolved in their years together. The movie takes us through the resolution of this family crisis, revealing progressively what each character has withheld from the others, and loops in a larger plot involving their extended family and, in effect, the entire Island community. 

Clooney gives a consistent, effective performance, and is one of the reasons this movie should work alright for the average guy (Women on average tolerate him pretty well, I believe) despite it's focus on relationships as the subject matter and rather slow pace. He maintains a strong masculine 'hero' persona throughout, and definitely rises to the tragic occasion. Along the way, he responds in ways, some comic and some cliché, that make him an attractive 'male' perspective from which to view the events of the film. He is strong, well meaning, active, and ultimately prevails to a large degree in the terms of the film. 

I really enjoyed the performance of Shailene Woodley in the role of his daughter, poised on adulthood. Her character's response to Clooney and their work with one another represents the visible 'love story' - father-daughter in this case - that makes the movie work moment to moment.

The comatose patient is very much a character in several of the most important scenes. I was struck by how silent the relatively full theater was during some of these climactic moments. The audience was neither restless nor tearful, just intent, during even the long, slow, quiet moments. Never sentimental, the film focuses on the experience of confronting death in others as an argument for living life authentically, acknowledging and resolving conflict rather than lapsing into comfortable disengagement.

All in all, a fascinating couple of hours of storytelling, acting, and thought-provoking cinema. A notch or two above the average theater experience, and way higher than the average among films that tackle this category of emotional experience.

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