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Nancy Doyle Palmer

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The Descendants: A Paint-By-Number Masterpiece

Posted: 01/17/12 09:13 AM ET

There is something so wrong it's right about The Descendants.

Consider this:

"I'm going to hit you"???

How often do you go to the movies and have either the narrator or the character tell you exactly what is about to happen? Yet this occurs time and again in this Golden Globe winner with great success -- a device that you think would work against such an A-list cast and director because of its elementary school simplicity yet it's part of this film's unique artistry.

Everything is explained.

The film begins with narrator and protagonist George Clooney's Matt King explaining the fallacy of Hawaii as paradise --" My friends on the mainland think Hawaii is paradise, that we are sipping mai tais, shaking our hips, catching waves... are they insane?"

He goes on to explain the details of the accident that has landed his wife in a coma and then details an upcoming family financial deal involving a huge land trust that will be a turning point of the film thusly: "my family meets in 6 days, I hold all the cards"

Dozens more moments are set up and performed accordingly as Matt struggles to bring his young daughters to finally say good-bye to their mother who has betrayed him egregiously. And much later, when the wife of the man his comatose wife has been having an affair with comes to say good-bye to her (trust me, by this time, it's strikingly easy to follow), she says this: " it's complicated and confusing -- I'm angry but I'm just so sorry"

Who does this?

Alexander Payne does. His strength is direct story-telling -- no shady flashbacks, no puzzles, no tricks -- his movies -- especially About Schmidt and Sideways -- are organically complicated dramas where the characters do all the work and the film let's that happen the best and clearest way it can. Revolutionary.

Recent films like J. Edgar, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy even Martha Marcy May Marlene, rely on flashback, jumbled sequence and questionable reality to compel the viewer perhaps at their peril -- is confusion losing its cachet?

By coupling this direct on-the-nose dialogue with even more explanatory voiceover narration and adding some old-timey graphic maps to illustrate plane travel from one island to the next, they really paint the picture for you. Payne has created a perfect forum for his actors to just do their jobs -- act out the story so seamlessly that the audience is absolutely present at all times.

This is not to say The Descendants is without technique. When teenage Alexandra learns her mother is going to die her reaction is shot underwater as she sinks into the family pool -- truly memorable -- and the very fact that the central character of the story is lifeless and on a respirator yet dominates the film speaks to Payne's authority as a story-teller.

This film works on a thousand levels and while it seems effortless a script like this doesn't happen often -- telegraphing just about everything allows the drama to unfold seamlessly as an essentially simple story is told.

As one of the character puts it, "This is a unique and dramatic situation" But to the audience, The Descendants is simply about saying good-bye.

 

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