The Descendants, with George Clooney as a Hawaiian land dynasty’s 1/32nd-Polynesian scion, has fans asking where writer-director Alexander Payne has been since 2004’s Sideways, which dispatched Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church on one last trip to the Santa Ynez wine country. (Sideways was such an ideal combo of comedy and drama that it was remade line-for-line in Japanese. The only change was a relocation to Napa Valley because Japanese tourists don’t do non-world-class attractions.)
In Payne’s new dramedy The Descendants, Clooney plays Matt King, the great-great-great-grandson of a 19th-century Hawaiian princess who, rather than marry her brother in the incestuous royal Hawaiian way, eloped with a Yankee businessman. Her numerous, mostly blue-eyed progeny hold in trust 40 undeveloped square miles of lovely Kauai.
Clooney’s protagonist tries to uphold the King clan’s ancestral Protestant work ethic, driving his Honda Civic to his law office every day. His more decadent cousins have tasked him with selling their patrimony. Meanwhile, his wife is in a coma from a speedboating accident.
And he has had to withdraw his elder daughter from Punahou School, the flagship of Hawaii’s Protestant landowning caste. He doesn’t think much of her boyfriend, Punahou’s most reliable source of primo weed. (Eventually the father comes to accept the stoner dude. Who knows? He may grow up to be president someday.)
As usual, Clooney isn’t tremendously believable as one of life’s beleaguered losers. But you don’t hire Clooney to disappear into characters like Gary Oldman does. You sign up Clooney, a witty man, to promote your movie.
The Descendants had me wondering: Where has Hawaii been since the 1960s? It’s hard to explain to somebody who wasn’t a kid back then just how large the Fiftieth State loomed. For instance, 1966’s top-grossing movie was an adaptation of James Michener’s Hawaii, with Julie Andrews as a New England Congregationalist missionary disembarking in 1820s Honolulu. (It didn’t hurt box-office receipts that—strictly in the interest of anthropological accuracy—the ship is greeted by a bevy of bare-breasted native beauties.)
Famously, the Protestant preachers came to Hawaii to do good but wound up doing well. They married into the native nobility, then formed an endogamous ruling caste that still controls much of Hawaii’s acreage.
Hawaii wasn’t celebrated just for scenery, though. In the Civil Rights Era, Hawaii was seen as embodying a solution to racial strife: intermarriage. Michener, the bard of mainstream pre-1960s liberalism, ended his episodic panorama with the advent of a new man who unites in his person Hawaii’s multiple cultures:
...in Hawaii a new type of man was being developed. He was a man influenced by both the west and the east, a man at home in either the business councils of New York or the philosophical retreats of Kyoto, a man wholly modern and American yet in tune with the ancient and the Oriental. The name they invented for him was the Golden Man.
One might assume that our current president, Honolulu-born-and-educated Barack Obama, would have fulfilled Michener’s fond hopes. Yet few have drawn the connection. Indeed, Obama, remembered by a Punahou classmate as “just another mixed kid,” found it expedient in Dreams from My Father to emphasize his African-American authenticity while glossing over both Hawaii’s tolerant diversity and his very WASPy education.
This tactic resounded strikingly in 2008 with younger Americans, who assumed they were electing President Will Smith only to wind up with the second coming of George H. W. Bush. Obama turned out to be not a superhero but a golfer.
Hawaii remains a grand setting for a storyteller. Unlike Michener, however, Payne is a miniaturist who downplays the sweeping stakes. In The Descendants, Clooney’s fictional King Trust owns 25,000 acres. Yet in real life, the scandal-plagued Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop Estate (which Payne thanks in the credits), owns 365,000 acres—nearly a tenth of the state.
Payne admires the Hawaiian landscape with a golfer’s eye. When one cousin explains that this is where the Pebble Beach-rivaling golf course will go, the camera pulls back to reveal a natural dogleg right par five. Yet the filmmaker lacks an innate feel for what Payne, a Midwestern Greek-American (“Payne” is “Papadopolous” Anglicized), calls “that kind of decaying aristocracy. I’m from Nebraska and I didn’t know Hawaii at all or the complex social fabric there. It’s a very strange and weird place.” Indeed, and Payne barely has time to scratch the surface.
Payne likely felt intimidated over the last seven years trying to top Sideways. No surprise, he doesn’t succeed with The Descendants. Its main flaw is that it’s too brief to cover all its fascinating terrain. Payne should stop giving himself director’s block by trying to carve small gems and make longer, shaggier miniseries for cable.
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