Review: The Descendants

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After watching The Descendants I had the feeling like I do when I’ve eaten something that is palatable but seems to be missing a key ingredient, an ingredient that I can’t quite place. The film is well directed, intelligently written, and superbly acted, and perhaps best of all has a profound sense of place, but, as the annoying guy in the movie line said of the latest Fellini film in Annie Hall, it didn’t hit me on a gut level.

I’m a big fan of writer/director Alexander Payne–Election and Sideways are two of my favorite films of the last fifteen years. The Descendants is more in line with the film of his I liked least, About Schmidt, in that it leans toward the sentimental. Payne does better when he casts a gimlet eye on his protagonist.

Here the protagonist is Matt King, played by George Clooney. He is directly descended from Hawaiian royalty and one of the first white families to inhabit the islands. A successful attorney, he is the trustee in charge of a large parcel of oceanfront land that the whole family has decided to sell to the high bidder, who will turn it into a resort community.

That is Clooney’s less pressing concern, though. His wife is in a coma from a boating accident. He is dealing with a troubled 10-year-old daughter (Amara Miller), and a 17-year-old daughter in a private school (Shailene Woodley) who had some sort of beef with her mother. Early on Clooney finds out the disagreement was over his now comatose wife’s philandering.

Most of the film deals with Clooney tracking down the man who was sleeping with his wife. He turns out to be Matthew Lillard, who I remember mostly for playing the obnoxious kid in a series of bad teen films. Here he’s a real estate agent, and has a connection with the land sale. Will Clooney exact his revenge by blocking the sale?

I have a feeling that what appealed most to Payne about this project, which is adapted from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings (the script was co-written by Payne with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) is the sense of place. Hawaii is certainly a distinct place in America, which few of us have visited for more than a week at a time. The opening scenes, of poverty and despair on the streets of Hawaii, include a voiceover by Clooney wondering at the sanity of people who tell him he lives in paradise. From the film you can get the sense of how life goes a little slower there–shoes are optional, and baseball caps and flowered shirts are formal wear. As Clooney says, “Very important people look like bums and stunt men.”

Beyond that, The Descendants also has a keen sense of betrayal, as Clooney and Woodley are both forced to be angry with a woman who can not defend herself. Clooney calls himself the “backup parent,” and seems at a loss how to deal with his kids. Woodley, who is sensational as a teenager burning with rage, bonds with her father over finding Lillard, as if they were on some kind of father-daughter scavenger hunt. The family that sleuths together, stays together, I guess.

But other parts of The Descendants fell flat for me. I didn’t understand the presence of Woodley’s boyfriend, Nick Krause, who seems to be channeling Spiccoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. A subplot involving Robert Forster as Clooney’s tough father-in-law also didn’t work. I did like a late appearance by Judy Greer, who gives the film a lift.

On the face of it, The Descendants is a good movie, it just isn’t great. I think I was supposed to care more about these people than I did. Clooney, who shows more vulnerability than he ever has before, and may pick up an Oscar for his effortm (have we ever seen Clooney cry before?) is riveting, but I couldn’t feel myself in his shoes. Maybe that’s because he’s hardly ever wearing them.

My grade for The Descendants: B+

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

4 responses »

  1. Looking forward to seeing this. As a fan of Alexander Payne – Sideways is one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever seen – he’s made me wait far too long for his next film. Glad this is living up to expectation.

  2. I liked it somewhat less than you, JS. Having Clooney playing the lead saves it to some extent. He’s good here, and I shudder to think of what might have been if someone I liked less played the lead. I mean, ten years ago Kevin Spacey might have played a role like this. But at least I thought it was watchable.

    I liked Woodley too, in the sense that I think she’s probably very talented, but her character didn’t seem like a whole person to me. It was more of a type – angry teen – and she was often subject to the demands of the plot. I don’t think that Payne really cares about or respects her at all. So often she was just there to reflect whatever aspect of Clooney’s character that was being emphasized at any given moment, like a typical woman in a movie about men. At least this time Payne does this a little less obviously than with Virginia Madsen’s character in Sideways.

    Krause’s boyfriend character was there just because Payne, as usual, needed someone to look down on, and he wasn’t satisfied with simply taking a few shots at the fat Hawaiian woman. At least this time it’s a supporting character, and not the lead character like in Sideways.

    But you’re right – for a movie about grief and betrayal, there’s surprisingly little emotional impact, and I think that a big reason is that the beginning and the end are both wrong. Clooney’s voiceover at the beginning goes straight to the Unnecessary Voiceover Hall of Fame. “My family is like an archipelago” … wow, that’s awful. His line about being the “backup parent” is a perfect example of something that would have been apparent without being told it in voiceover. Even his speech about the perception of Hawaii being “paradise” seems unnecessary; it probably would have been more effective to let the drama play out against the backdrop of “paradise” without making a big damn announcement about the contradiction. That conceit is borderline heavy-handed even without coming right out and saying it.

    (****MINOR SPOILER IN THE FOLLOWING TWO PARAGRAPHS***)
    Then the dispute about the land ends in the most predictable, audience-pandering way possible. Somewhat problematically, this provokes another speech by Clooney about his deep ties to the land, which frankly had not been in evidence during the entire movie up to that point. Suddenly I felt like, wait, was this supposed to have been the point of the movie all along? Because it really felt like he was making an irrational, spur-of-the-moment decision out of a combination of grief and revenge. As good as Clooney is in the movie, he couldn’t make this scene work.

    I also didn’t think the scene between Clooney and Lillard really worked. It revolves too much around Matt’s wounded pride, and I thought the scene would have played out in curiously similar fashion even if the wife was still alive and well. I mean, there’s not any sense of loss in questions like “Were you in my bedroom?” It’s a moment of immaturity for a character who, until that point, had been striving desperately to be as mature as he could be. Which is understandable, I guess, but it makes for kind of a pointless scene. I think it could have been cut without any detriment to the film. And while I sort of liked Greer’s performance, too, the same could be said about her hospital visit. Both of those scenes had “DVD extra features” written all over them.
    (***END SPOILERS***)

    So, that’s that, I guess. Haven’t decided on a number rating yet, but I’m thinking probably a 6/10. Maybe 5/10 if I get crankier about it in the next few days; I get the feeling that I’ll realize more and more that the movie’s foundation is very unstable.

  3. This was a major disappointment – easily Payne’s weakest film.

    Agree with Brian on most points – despite the hard work of those involved, this film had virtually no emotional impact on me. Can’t believe that the person who made ‘Election’ could make something be so heavy-handed in its attempts to be crowd-pleasing and sentimental.

    I think what sunk the film overall for me was that the central plotline of Clooney and his family seeking out his wife’s lover seemed so uninteresting and inconsequential. And even the payoff and climax wasn’t that great (as Brian said).

    All the more interesting stuff was at the edges of the film – like the confrontation scene between Clooney and the guy who drove the speedboat that was in his wife’s accident. Or the tension between Clooney and his wife’s father (enjoyed Robert Forster’s performance) and what Clooney can’t say to him about his daughter. That more sharply observant human interaction and behaviour is where Payne in his element, but there was far too little of it.

    *****mild spoiler warning******

    Like Brian I found the scene resolving the land dispute very lame. Clooney’s character changing his mind on one of the most pivotal decisions in his life (and for his extended family) just as he was about to put the pen to paper was so cornball you’d think it belonged in a lame TV movie. And this film is considered by many to be one of the best films of the year!

    And why did Clooney decide not to sign anyway? Because of that scene where they decide to look at the land one last time, because that had an impact as opposed to the hundreds of times he’d been there before?

    Also, going by the film’s logic he would’ve been happy to sign if his wife hadn’t been involved in the accident which seems a rather absurd reason to make such a pivotal decision.
    *****end spoiler warning*******

    After a dreary, verging on boring, opening 25-30 mins or so the film did improve and had nice scenes here or there (e.g. the scene late at night between Clooney and his daugther’s boyfriend) but nowhere near enough.

    Rating: C

  4. I was affected extremely deeply by the film. It didn’t feel heavy-handed or clunky. The ending felt perfect.

    Also, going by the film’s logic he would’ve been happy to sign if his wife hadn’t been involved in the accident which seems a rather absurd reason to make such a pivotal decision.

    Now, with this said, yes, it is quite strange that it would take his wife’s accident to make him want to change his mind.

    And I felt Woodley’s was the weakest performance.
    And I felt Clooney was never less than exactly what he needed to be in the role. Why wouldn’t he ask if it was in his bed? These are questions he would ask her if she was awake. I felt it was a really different turn on the standard ‘cheating fare’ that the movie played-out like that.

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