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.
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:
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.