The Descendants

Whelp, it’s that time of year again. That sweet, sweet moment on New Year’s day when one chooses the Hawaii-est, George Clooney-est movie of the year, and reviews that movie on one’s blog.

That’s a thing, right?

Of course it is! And even if it’s not a thing, I’ll do it anyway, because that’s the kind of guy I am.

Now, naturally, the film in 2011 that meets the highest quotas of both Hawaii and George Clooney would be Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, and I’d like to start with an over-generic blanket statement about the film:

I didn’t like the first half at all, but then I liked the second half a lot.

So, to fit in with my blanket statement, I will now divide my review into two segments- Part 1, up until we meet Beau Bridges (as Cousin Hugh), and Part 2, which begins once we meet Beau Bridges.

Part 1

Something you hear all the time when talking about film is ‘show, not tell.’ Essentially, this means that it’s always better to convey a mood, or a feeling, or a character’s mindset through action and through the subtext of a scene, rather than just having someone say what’s going on. So, following this method as poorly as possible, The Descendants begins with a boatload of voiceover explaining every intricate detail of the plot and each character and how we’re supposed to think and feel and behave while watching the movie. We should learn who Matt King (Clooney) is by observing him as he goes through his day- his interactions with his kids, his business partners, and his comatose wife could be used to paint a picture of a man struggling to father his children and bear the full responsibilities of a big-money land deal. Showing who Matt King is makes him feel like a living, breathing person. Hearing who Matt King is makes him feel like a character in a movie.

So after I got over the voiceover, I started to wonder why I wasn’t really engaging with the movie. And I think it’s because I hated all the characters.

I’m exaggerating, but still- there’s a serious lack of characters who the audience can relate to (plus characters who actually act like real people would). Take Sid. Sid is average. Sid is dumb. Sid is, to put it colloquially, a meat-head. Which is fine. Having a father clash with his daughter’s boyfriend is a perfectly good source of conflict. But then Sid points and laughs at a woman with Alzheimer’s and makes unfunny and weirdly cruel jokes about the elderly and the mentally retarded. At which point, any human with a functioning brain would remove Sid from his or her life forever. And yet the family keeps Sid along, buying him plane tickets and including him in this wildly personal family trip for no reason other than one line where Alex (daughter of Matt) makes a vague threat to only stay if Sid stays too. Matt King’s supposed to be an absentee dad (despite almost no evidence to support this other than lots of voiceover and a shoehorned-in “Daaaaaaaad, don’t do lawyer stuff now! We’re trying to be a family” scene) but absentee dad or not, anyone with a half-formed brain would kick Sid to the curb the moment he pointed and laughed at an old woman with Alzheimer’s. Seriously.

Also, quick point: after a heated argument between father Matt and daughter Alex, Matt loses control of himself and spanks his daughter. Cut to younger daughter Scottie yelling “You got served!”

That line doesn’t need to be in the movie.

It doesn’t add anything.

Nothing at all.

Why is it in the movie?

And with that note, I move on to:

Part 2

So Matt discovers his comatose wife was having an affair and they all travel to meet this mystery cheater man and at one point they stumble into a hokey-looking restaurant near the beach. There’s noise and clutter and a hokey little band playing in the corner, like any number of cruddy restaurants a family would try on vacation because it’s the closest restaurant they could find.

“Hmmmmm…” I thought to myself. “This really feels like somewhere I’d go when I was a kid on vacation with my family.”

And things got better from there. Matt sees his Cousin Hugh- played wonderfully in that I-can’t-quite-tell-if-he’s-stoned-or-not fashion by Beau Bridges, and the second their conversation starts up I feel myself getting more invested in the movie. Bridges injects enough chemistry into the scene that the “land deal plotline” starts to get some actual weight and I actually found myself excited to see what happens next.

And what happens next is a wonderfully tense little scene where Clooney confronts his wife’s lover while trying to stay as calm and friendly as possible, lest the lover’s family discover the real motives behind their conversation. At this point I’m really liking The Descendants.

And for the most part, that feeling stays true throughout the rest of the picture. There’s an awkward, hammy scene where Judy Greer (as Clooney’s wife’s lover’s jilted wife) screams and cries at the comatose Mrs. King, but other than that everything wrapping up the movie is handled beautifully. Robert Forster shines in a wordless shot of him kissing his dying daughter’s forehead. Even Amara Miller (as Scottie “You Got Served” King) gets some great mileage out of hearing that her mom’ll never wake up.

And the last shot is simple, sweet, and a perfect example of how to do everything right that the beginning of the movie got so wrong- Clooney and his two daughters cozy up to each other on the couch, sharing bowls of ice cream and watching March Of The Penguins, all three wrapped up in the blanket that kept their mother warm in the hospital. In a single still shot with no dialogue, we can see the closeness that’s developed between these characters and the memory of their wife/mother will always be important.

If only the whole movie was like that.

Whelp, that’s the review. I hoped you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

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13 responses to “The Descendants

  1. I love this! I enjoyed reading this very much.
    I’ve been dying to watch this ever since it came out – my mother downloaded it but didn’t let watch it saying it was boring and full of swearing. That didn’t put me off, I’m still trying to convince her to let me watch it.
    This review has made me want to watch it more than ever, it sounds great, esp as Mr Clooney is in it!

  2. Thanks for the follow and like! Nifty blog you have here.

    I must admit, I skipped over this post in case of spoilers, as I haven’t yet seen the film (and want to). Looking forward to checking out your posts! ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Hey Adam!

    I’ve finally seen “The Descendants”. I think my post – apart from mentioning your great reviews – makes it, er, uhm, rather clear I didn’t like the second part either ๐Ÿ˜‰

    http://bit.ly/wHdzva

    The debate is on?

    Ciao from Barcelona

    • THE DEBATE IS ON!

      I still think The Descendants is able to pull out of the nosedive that is the first act, but I wholeheartedly agree that the amount of praise it’s getting is really excessive for a movie that was (in my opinion, anyway) good but not great.

      And I’ll still argue that the scene where Clooney meets Matthew Lillard (the wife’s boyfriend) has some tension to it.

      Debate on!

  4. Yeah, that scene does have some tension to it. But the way I see it, it might as well be the only working gimmick in a movie that was unacceptably written “from the outside in”.

    I mean, the script (again, IMHO!) does not develop organically – you know, like in those graceful movies where every details seems to blossom meaningfully from a sound core; just one example that comes to mind is Tom Ford’s “A Single Man”.

    Rather, happenings and information are squeezed into the story with the manipulative intent of making the audience go “Oh!”, “Ah!”, “Eh” and so on. Take the mother with Alzheimer; what does it add to the story? What does it contribute, apart from a shiver down the spine of already involved viewers and a couple of useless jokes? The same goes for the character of the daughter’s dumb friend: what for? Just to cram in some generational critique which deflects our attention and, again, makes room for a few empty laughs.

    Apart from the few stills you mentioned, I just can’t see what’s so good with the second part. The customary postcards from Hawaii, perhaps? Clooney’s “awakening” to the priority of feelings over money, with consequent departure from the family’s greedy orientation? Is this really all we are willing and able to reveal about human nature? These are some of the reasons why, at best, I find this movie a badly written, pseudo-edifying fairy tale.

    Ipse dixit! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Ohohohohohoho.

      You’re right, the script doesn’t develop organically. Everything’s thrown at us in the first five minutes using some cheap voiceover tactics and we never get to really “meet” these characters for the first time. We just hear about them.

      However, I’d say that some of the things you mention- the mother with Alzheimer’s and the dumb friend, specifically- are there to help us sympathize with Clooney’s character. It’s just that the problems early on in the script make this a lot harder to do.

      Ideally, the dumb kid laughing at his girlfriend’s grandmother paints him as a moron, but as Clooney progresses through the story, he learns that the kid isn’t actually all that bad. He’s dumb, but he means well, and through this, Clooney (the absentee father) learns that his daughter is mature enough to go out with a guy who’s sincere, if stupid. But the problem is that we never actually see Clooney as an absentee father, and the strained relationship between Clooney and his daughter isn’t really present at all, so a lot of this goes right out the window.

      For me, Clooney still grows enough as a character to make the second half of the film enjoyable.

      • …this is what I call a worthy opponent! ๐Ÿ˜‰

        I understand your points, Adam. I guess I just have a different approach to evaluating a movie. Or simply different tastes?

        To me, the evolution of Clooney’s character is artificial and unsatisfying. The story of an absentee father who learns to stand by his daughters after his wife leaves the stage is neither innovative, nor especially revealing. You can see right from the start that this man is going to learn a lesson – you know what I mean? The development is clear upfront, there’s no element of surprise (except maybe when the wife of his wife’s lover gives him a kiss, but even that is shoved in to dress the plot and simply goes nowhere). And the fact that the lesson is “leave the money and follow your heart”, I mean… How clichรฉ is that! Did we need to reach 2012 to discover this amazing truth?

        To keep it simple: I haven’t learned anything new about life watching this. It hasn’t told me a single thing I didn’t know before, nor even on a smaller scale, revealed to me any unexpected facets of life
        .
        Just to be clear, I don’t always judge a movie this way; some films focus on the visuals or the acting, for instance, and I won’t ask them to give me what they don’t promise. But with this movie in particular, its focus on “the human side” is clear from the start and is actually hammered into our heads right until the end credits; so what I say is, if you pretend you’ve got something meaningful to show us, go ahead, I’m all ears, but if you think you’ve accomplished your mission by throwing us a few Cosmopolitan bones, you’d better look for a different audience.

        Will you really tell me that the human depth of this film satisfies you? And it doesn’t necessarily have to be “Melancholia”; I’ve found enough human depth and learned some nice stuff watching “The Social Network” or “127 Hours”, for instance… Perhaps because they didn’t aim so high, but for different reasons eventually reached higher than “The Descendants”.

        So now what? :)))

        Ciao, Matteo
        http://www.tipsology.net

      • Now what? NOW WHAT?

        Well, I’ll say that the emotional center this film is going for is certainly a cliche, but it’s not so much the novelty of a story (for me, anyway) that is a sign of quality, but the connection between the audience and that story. Take another film by this director- Sideways. Again, the arcs for the two main characters are pretty straightforward. The freewheeling guy settles down a little bit, and the uptight one learns to have a good time. It’s a story as old as dirt, but it works because the characters feel real and sympathetic and because the process of reaching a fairly standard emotional climax is genuinely exciting and entertaining.

        On the human depth of The Descendants, i’m torn to whether I’m fully satisfied or not. I’ll concede that the main character arc for Clooney’s character never really works for me the way it should, but I’d argue that there are enough smaller moments peppered into the last half of the film that provide a decent amount of emotional weight. The scene in the restaurant or the shot at the end when they’re all snuggled in the mother’s blanket all affected me on a personal level and I really enjoyed them. The bigger moments- tossing the mother’s ashes out to sea and almost everything with the younger daughter… not so much. All in all, though, I’d say there are still meaningful elements within the film.

        BOOM.

      • Aaaaw, there’s no point in debating with you. You don’t even realize your own scale tips against the movie, not in favour. You didn’t like the first part at all. You think the emotional center is certainly a clichรฉ. The main character arc never really works for you. You didn’t enjoy the bigger moments so much. How thrilling – I’m running to the cinema as we speak! But yeah, you liked the meeting with the wife’s secret lover and you think the film featured a nice blanket or something. Is this enough for five Oscar nominations and all the hype?

        You say that the real sign of quality is the connection between the audience and the story. But what if that connection is totally manufactured through shameless manipulation? Accidents, diseases, betrayals, family feuds: all of this is sprinkled on top of this desolate wasteland of a plot because it’s supposed to engage and move the audience. That’s the takeaway question for me: are we really willing to let ourselves be engaged and moved by such shallow tear-jerkers?

        No no no, Mr. Bellotto. And I repeat: no no (the third no might sound a tad redundant by now). I demand more from the big screen. If I have to cry I want my tears to be real, not squeezed out of my eyes through a bunch stinky onion chunks dressed up as XXI century psychodrama.

        One last thing. See this? http://bit.ly/AwNEMK
        I’ve made it with my own hands tonight (dough included), while you were hyperventilating as you desperately seeked a handful of arguments to defend the undefendable. And if you had simply given up and acknowledged how bad this movie actually is, I might have emailed you a slice ๐Ÿ˜‰

      • You say that the connection between the audience is formed through manipulation, using accidents, diseases, betrayals and family feuds, but I wouldn’t say that these are manipulations. They’re simply conflicts that drive the story. Plenty of films use much more melodrama and plenty use less. What we connect to is how our characters react to these elements and how they grow and change because of them.

        And, honestly, I don’t believe that The Descendants deserves either the nominations or the hype that it’s getting at the moment. It was (in my opinion, anyway) an ok movie that I more or less enjoyed while I was watching it.

        Of course, I’ll still argue in defense of the elements that I thought worked well. And I’ll always argue in favor of pizza.

      • Fair enough, Mr. Bellotto…
        I think the whole theme of manipulation on the big screen would deserve a separate discussion. How do we distinguish a manipulative script from one that isn’t? Or is it, as you seem to argue, that there is no such thing as a manipulative script? But I’m sure we’ll have a chance for a further exchange of views in the future ๐Ÿ˜‰
        keep shining (no reference to Kubrick’s movie intended!), ciao

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