November 23, 2011

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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