Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Descendants Descends into the Incredible World of Blah

By Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg
The Good-Looking One's Rating: 3/5 Stars

© studiobriefing.net, 2011

Although I hardly keep up with all the Oscar-palooza that goes on throughout the year, my good buddy The Savant—obsessed with all things Academy, as I’m sure you know by now—has informed me that Alexander Payne’s recent release The Descendants is currently a heavy hitter in the race for “Best Picture”.  After seeing the film last week, I can only wonder why.

The film is based around how Matt King (George Clooney) and his two daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), deal with the boating accident and ensuing permanent vegetative coma of Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie)—his wife and their mother.  The tragedy is further brought to the forefront by the fact that Elizabeth’s will stipulates that she must be taken off of all life-support machines within a few weeks.

Right at the outset, we learn that the King family lives in Hawaii, and that nevertheless, their life is no paradise (this is revealed via banal self-conscious inner-monologue from Clooney; indeed, this trope was simply cloying). It seems that even before Elizabeth’s injury and subsequent coma, the family was disconnected from each other: Matt’s relationship with her seems to have significantly fizzled, his version of fatherhood could be described as distracted and clumsy, his oldest daughter Alexandra is in full-on ‘rebel without a cause’ mode, we eventually learn that Elizabeth was having an affair with a married man before her accident.

Alongside this primary plot is what we could call ‘The Hawaiian Heritage Plot’.  Matt’s descended (hence the title) from a serendipitous marriage between a Hawaiian princess and a European land acquirer (I know there’s a technical term for this), and thus through various dealings, he’s now the sole trustee of a hundreds-million dollars’ worth of Kauaian land.  And since some of his cousins are deeply in debt, Matt is searching for a developer to buy the land and make them all rich.  This causes somewhat of a stir in the Hawaiian community, as most hope that Matt doesn’t sell, in order to stave off the glitzy tourism such would bring.

Of course, Matt makes up with his daughters and decides to preserve his Hawaiian heritage in the end; it all works out (don’t worry about the spoiler, the plot isn’t really what matters in this movie; it’s more a character and relationship piece).

So, knowing all this now, what’s all the praise about, and why is it misguided?  Well, there is indeed much good in the film: Clooney is Clooney per usual, only Dad-style—but it kind of works.  Woodley imbues her character with complexity, and manages to create a unique identity rather than falling into the clichéd trap of being the ‘rebellious teen’—indeed, her reaction at first hearing that her mother will die is powerful, and well-directed by Payne.  The relationship between the family comes off as authentic and dynamic; it’s fun watching them (especially Woodley and Clooney) interact with each other.  One of the opening scenes—in which a mother at Scottie’s school calls to tell Matt that Scottie’s been bullying her daughter, and that they must come over and apologize—is fantastic in the way it interweaves all the themes of the story (this mother is a native Hawaiian who makes sure to give Matt her two cents about selling the land) and illustrates the psyches of and relationship between Matt and Scottie (by the way, is there anything more BS than someone else’s parent demanding that you force your child to apologize?).  The bouncy ukulele-filled soundtrack lightens the mood of a film that deals with something so, so dark.

For all these reasons, the film is deserving of praise.  But ultimately, it’s undone for one reason: it manages to take a plotline filled with such gravity, and turn you out of the theatre feeling---well, blah about it all.

I suppose this is accomplished (or failed at) for several reasons: The story makes Elizabeth out to be so unsympathetic (the affair with a married man, poor relationship with her daughters, risky behavior, jackass of a father, shallow best friend) that quite frankly, it’s difficult to care too much about her or what’s happened to her.  While we care somewhat about what Matt and co. are going through, the actual tragedy of her death is muted by her unlikability as a character.

Nonetheless, however, it’s impossible for us to get the warm fuzzies at the end of the film—when Matt and his daughters become a connected family and realize the importance of their bonds—because the situation that’s happened to them is still too weighty and muddled to just shrug off.  Thus, as an audience, we’re left not especially caring that Elizabeth will die, and not especially caring that Matt and his daughters have found true connections.  Overall, then, it seems to me that the topic itself and the Payne’s treatment of it alienate the audience from any sort of lasting connection to the film.

The film’s secondary ‘Hawaiian Heritage Plot’ also fails to resonate with us in its resolution.  In fact, this plot’s development is so disjointed that the resolution seems confusing and frivolous; the film only sparingly mentions Matt’s Hawaiian ancestry, and until the end, it seems that Matt could care less about it.  Rightfully, he’s so distracted by his wife’s accident that the land’s sale becomes unimportant to him; he seems willing to leave it all in the hands of his numerous cousins.  When Matt finds out, however, that the favored buyer will integrally involve the man with whom his wife had an affair, he suddenly starts to care again, flirting with the idea of selling to someone else.  Abruptly, however, Matt decides not to sell at all.  The filmmakers try to pawn off the reason to us as ‘Matt has a sudden epiphany that he truly does love Hawaii, and cares about its natural preservation’.

I’m sorry: this just doesn’t fly.  I can’t even remember once in this movie when Matt expressed anything more than passing appreciation for his native land; and certainly, it seems more plausible that Matt didn’t sell because he didn’t want the man with whom his wife had an affair to benefit at all from his sale.  Thus, the resolution of this secondary plot comes off as forced and inauthentic, and moreover confused in its motivations; as an audience, we don’t exactly buy Matt’s sudden love for the land.  And therefore, we find it difficult to feel much of a connection to the film in its resolution of this secondary plot.

There are other issues with the film—mostly dealing with disjointed and lazy character development (most of this is on the screenplay, I believe).  But what really stands out about this film is how despite its weighty plot and sympathetic characters, it manages to not really say anything powerful, and to leave us with—well, nothing.  So tell me, Academy, why shalt thou give this film your most precious award?



  1. Very nicely written and considered, Paul.

  2. I agree with most everything you say here, Paul. The intense admiration from most everyone seems a bit inexplicable to me, especially in terms of the Oscar race. I will defend that it is an enjoyable movie with moments of greatness (as of now, Shailene Woodley's performance will be the one I will championing this season), but ultimately fails to escape past a few, lazy cliches. As much as I believe Sideways to be a relatively flawless movie, I can never forgive Alexander Payne here for the heavy-handedness of the final cliche with the floating leis in the water. Excellent review all around!

    -The Savant

  3. Thanks, Dad.

    @ The Savant:

    Woodley was indeed the standout. I thought the acting, overall, was pretty decent. Had a couple problems with the script, and there certainly were some cliches bandied about.

  4. I completely agree with you. It was hard to relate to these characters. I watched the whole movie, which deals with some very weighty themes such as mother in vegetative state, adultery, teen rebellion, etc., and was never emotionally drawn into the characters experience. (With themes like this, I would usually shed a tear or two, but I was dry on this one.)Woodley was a standout, and Clooney was serviceable, but I never lost the thought that he was George Clooney "playing" a character.

    Great piece of writing and analysis, Paul :).

  5. @ Anoynymous:

    I felt, as I'm sure you can tell, the same way. It just hit me kind of numbly. Right with you on Clooney, too. Decent and generally likeable, per usual, but nothing that popped off the screen or broke out of his box. Thanks for your comments!

    -The Good-Looking One