There used to be something called Australian Quirky that involved Queensland houses, dysfunctional families, hot weather, vile music, death, failed sex, hoonish teenage kids annoying each other and what used to be called ‘social comedy’. All these ingredients are present in The Descendants, a film set in Oahu, whose director/writer Alexander Payne made Sideways, with George Clooney in a sourpuss/cuckold/estate-executor/thwarted-progenitor role plainly meant for Paul Giamatti, and so embarrassed by it he may well get an Oscar for his brazen, cringing struggles with it.
Never was there a man less likely to be stingy, jealous, faithful, abashed by imminent widowhood and loudly upbraiding his bereaved impertinent children than glamorous, cluey, twinkling, dishy George Clooney. Cary Grant never played a father, ever, and neither should he. Nor should he attempt an ‘ordinary man’, as he does in this film, he isn’t right for it. His personal flavour is heroic, magnetic, ironic, amusing, dashing, sexy and handsome as Lucifer the fallen angel and his income level irrelevant. In this film he plays a watchful, spooked and parsimonious multi-millionaire (he won’t buy his kids good things lest they cease to appreciate money) whose mutinous progeny nonetheless come to like him after his adulterous wife becomes a dying vegetable and he finds out who the bitch was balling and resolves to track him down, smoke him out, git him running, as George Bush did Bin Laden; cut off his nuts maybe, and that should settle things.
Out of these dreadful, silly, semi-South Park premises — and what may have been an excellent novel by Karui Hart Hemming — Payne and his co-adaptors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have jerry-built over six or seven years, the usual time for a film to be ‘developed’ these days (the time it took De Vere to write and put on Henry V, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Measure For Measure, Troilus and Cressida, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Pericles and Cymbeline) a script that after much revision and pained retightening just about works (in the eccentric, wayward, black comic manner of Muriel’s Wedding and Submarine), found a dozen excellent actors to be in it, lavished on it the klunkiest music score since preCambrian times (Hawaiian yodelling and banjo-plunking and whooping and moaning whenever the bickering abates and a gorgeous landscape approaches), and somehow, despite massive illogicalities, brought it home.
The massive illogicalities include the rebellious teenage daughter Alexandra, first seen drunk at her private school while under threat of suspension, who keeps a thick boy friend Sid on hand at all times but never fucks him, never does drugs with him, loyally baby-sits her snaky little sister Scottie and assists her father’s quest to find and kill his cuckolder, her sudden reformation massively unexplained; her dumb boy friend Sid who laughs out loud at the dementia of her grandmother (who thinks she’s going to meet the Queen) and gets a black eye from her grandfather for it, yet is tolerated by her father still, and paid for on his travels with them; and, oh yes, Matt King, the central vengeful budding apprentice in bereavement, played by Clooney, who wouldn’t buy his boat-mad wife a boat with his idle scores of millions and now sits railing at her withered comatose unspeaking doomed remnant wondering why he didn’t divorce her.
A kind of prurient madness lies at the crux of his current hypocrisy, which Giamatti could have made sense of but not sly glamorous winning George. His marriage was ‘in trouble’, his voice-over says, and he wanted to divorce her. Had he himself been unfaithful? What else does ‘in trouble’ mean? Why then is he surprised when she is unfaithful? Why? And who was this lost intermittent squeeze? What became of her? Why aren’t we told? Giamatti could have sorted out these omission, contradictions and hypocrisies but Clooney, a man as handsome as Batman playing a billionaire lawyer who neglects his kids and goes walkabout a lot but never strays from his loathed wife’s desolate marital bed, no, never, cannot bestraddle the infinite contradictions of his role, in my view, though he will get of course an Oscar for it, or come close.
Another Hawaiian-born lawyer, Barack Obama, will enjoy this movie’s blushful palm-thronged beachscapes, tall remembered hills and white wood bungalows, so like Cairns or Murwillumbah, and the laid-back, dressed-down provincial taciturnity and sluggard selfishness that formed his character and his fabled patience with fools. He will recognise a lot of the people too, and share some part of their immemorial guilt at having occupied and exploited for centuries an earthly paradise not of their own making, inheritance, tribe or spirituality.
The best parts of this film are about this immemorial guilt, and the tremendous inheritance of a beautiful empty island from their distant ancestor King Kamehaha,with whose granddaughter a white ancestor long ago interbred, whicho Matt, on behalf of his many rich quarrelsome cousins, must now as a lawyer dispose of — for, oh, half a billion or so, to this developer or that — because of a fool new Hawaiian law that now obliges him, and them, to divest themselves of it in the next seven years. But surely, surely this is sacred ground and not theirs, morally, to pillage, loot and ravish? Yet half a billion dollars is a lot of money, cousin. We should talk about this. We should talk about this.
One of the cousins, Hugh, is played by Beau Bridges, unrecogniseably old and bloated now, with a fine mean simmering beer-bellied mendacity, and the insipid cuckolder, Brian Speer, a real estate mediocrity involved in one of the dodgy bids for the island (a further incentive for Matt to hate and kill him), by Matthew Lillard with wonderful edgy avarice and a shallow gummy smile, and Judy his knowing wife, who visits the deathbed, and shrieks abuse at her vegetative rival, superbly by the Streep-like Judy Greer. Shailene Woodley is very good as Alexandra, whose character however makes no sense, and Nick Krause a knockout as the wise klutz Sid, whose thicko motor mouth should feature (I propose) at every family funeral to lighten the occasion. Clooney is quite ridiculous, but will get an Oscar for his bungled good intentions, and his pilfering of Giamatti’s patrimony, on the good and solid Hollywood grounds that it is his turn.
Needless to say you should see this movie, and go to Queensland immediately and make one like it, with Paul J. Hogan, perhaps, directing. It is at the very least a further step of the American journey towards a European style, or Australian style, art cinema that celebrates the contradictions and follies and gaucheries and fraudulences and kindnesses and vengeances of real life as it is lived, and was always lived, in the valley of the shadow of death.