Film: 'The Descendants'; Actors: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller; Director: Alexander Payne; Rating: ****
What do we inherit from family and friends, lovers and parents? Money and property or emotions, shared memories and melancholia. What value does any of these have in the kind of world we live in? Do those values change with the infusion of some unknown information or understanding?
'The Descendants' dares to ask these questions in a seemingly fun, light-hearted sort of way that belies its depth and sincerity of emotions.
Matt's (George Clooney) world turns upside down when his wife lies in a coma after an accident. A lawyer by profession, he is a descendant of the royal family of Hawaii and has to take care of his two daughters - something he has never done.
As if getting the information that his wife would not recover was not enough, he finds out that she was having an affair.
The brilliance of the film lies in its fluctuating sub-genres. Though broadly you could call it a comedy-drama, it is also a farce, a satire and a romantic film, among others. It does not get carried away in any and stays firmly on ground to give a delectable experience.
The most important character in the film is that of the wife in coma, Elizabeth. Besides the first minute of the film when we see her surfing, in the rest of the film she is comatose. Yet, for good writers and directors, there's nothing like a woman in coma to shake things up vigorously.
A comatose Elizabeth thus becomes a metaphor for all the emotions, memories and feelings that we have repressed or regressed inside, hoping or waiting for it to go away till something shakes us and have them bubble out like a shaken aerated soft drink.
If you could nominate a lifeless actor in the film for the various meanings her lifelessness carries, this one would get an Oscar.
'The Descendants' is as deceptive a film as the state of Hawaii which to an outsider seems nothing but a sun and sand paradise. The film shows the real side of the island to give you a cinematic equivalent of sipping a rich, matured wine that fills up your mouth with invigorating warmth.
Clooney is good but it is perhaps the maturity of his well-written character that has got him an Oscar nomination.
The others excel, especially Shailene Woodley as his angst-ridden, mother-hating teenaged daughter who becomes her father's confidante. The impeccable casting complements this wonderful trip through Hawaiian landscape, music and its various seasons.
Add to this the writing and direction that manages to be effortlessly funny and you'll know why you have a gem amid you. Alexander Payne is no stranger to films with humour which soothes also your soul. This is first full length film after his 2004 masterpiece 'Sideways' and he does it once again with a film based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings.
People talk about the first shot of films being important. 'The Descendants' shows you how it could be the last.
It has no jimmy jib shot following your protagonists into the sunset. It merely has a long shot of three people watching TV together on a couch. This last scene, if you have understood the film, will seem like the last few strokes of a genius painter, or the last underline or two dots under an important signature.