George Clooney’s deceptive delight

The Descendants avoids romanticizing all the way

MANILA, Philippines – Deception may be a bane of human existence, yet it makes for a nice storytelling ingredient to director Alexander Payne’s newest film, The Descendants.

The 2011 movie, based on the debut novel by Hawaiian gal Kaui Hart Hemmings, features George Clooney as a clueless husband to a wife who, prior to a coma-inducing accident, turns out to have been a marital deceiver.

But the movie’s varying types, and degrees, of deception do not end there.

For one thing, an introductory montage presents Hawaii, the tale’s general setting, as less of a postcard-worthy expanse and more of a non-descript urban sprawl.

The state’s residents, their Aloha spirit aside, are also described as no less immune to aches and woes that bedevil people in less idyllic places.

And throughout the film, the predominant tranquility across the tropical environment is depicted as belying the complexities of life per se and the particular difficulties hounding Clooney’s character—a lawyer juggling spousal care, solo parenting of his two estranged children with their own issues (nicely essayed by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) and the looming sale-slash-commercialization of a vast tract of virgin land his esteemed ancestors had held on to for generations. The man’s world keeps becoming too much to bear, yet the world around him goes on rather unsympathetically.

Riddled with profanity

Even the actors are in on the deception scheme.

The likes of the otherwise suave Clooney and supporting actors Robert Forster, Judy Greer and Beau Bridges are deglamorized here to the point of looking too casual to be true, almost like they didn’t bother freshening up before getting out of the house.

Matthew Lillard, for his part, gets to deceive in a different sense: the otherwise wacky co-star of the Scream and Scooby-Doo movies shines as a dramatic talent despite the modicum of screentime The Descendants affords him. (Patricia Hastie herself plays the ill-fated wife with motionless efficiency throughout.)

All this comes as a pleasant non-surprise, given Payne’s renowned track record of funny dramas that say life’s a joke and the joke’s on us, and which reflect real life as closely as possible.

Overall, The Descendants may depict hardship and the seeming loneliness in dealing with dilemmas, yet the movie does so with tenderness, a touch of contemplation and even caustic humor to engage, rather than repel, the viewer. (It helps that the soundtrack showcases a lot of Hawaiian music, the lulling, “There there, life’s not that bad” vibe of the tunes a comforting aural buffer.)

The dialogue may also be riddled with profanity—in effect serving as this R-13 motion picture’s “bullets,” in the absence of action-flick gunfire—yet the entire script, penned by Payne and co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, is one that invites hearty scrutiny by movie lovers and film students alike. And even if the movie is stripped-down simple, visually and narratively, it comes off altogether as a deceptively elegant work of cinema.

All told, The Descendants is like the Hawaii it describes at the start and avoids romanticizing all the way to the bittersweet end: It is not always a pretty picture but, overall, it is undeniably beautiful. –

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