Review: The Descendants

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The Descendants | Alexander Payne, 2011

The Descendants is one of those movies that makes me question the importance of critics. Since its debut at the Telluride Film Festival for the most part it has gotten nothing but praise. Is American cinema in such a sorry state that such a bland film with no directorial identity is being praised as one of the best American films in years? Yes, American films are not the best they could possibly be, but really?

The Descendants is the story of Matt King (George Clooney) a successful lawyer that lives in Hawaii and has plenty of money as his family owns big chunks of land throughout  the state. But as good a lawyer he is, he wasn’t the best husband or the best father, and he now has to deal with that because his wife is in a comma and she’s not going to make it through. And that’s not all: he also has to deal with the possible sale of his family’s land to a company that wants to make a resort and with the fact that his wife was cheating on him and was going to ask for a divorce before she had the accident. And so now, Matt and his daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), and Alexandra’s friend Sid (Nick Craus) set out to tell his wife’s family about her inevitable death, but also to find her lover.

The main problem with The Descendants lies within the script. With this being Payne’s first truly emotional movie, we are asked that we at least feel for what the characters are going through. We are supposed to care about Matt’s eventual loss, we are supposed to care about him having to man up and take care of his daughters, we are supposed to feel for him when he finds out that his wife was cheating on him, and yet I didn’t. Everything happens so fast, the characters are not well developed and so for me they were just a random group of people going through some difficult times. And when there are some truly emotional moments, like Judy Greer’s speech toward the end, the writers just rush them, and they actually feel as if they were played for laughs, when they really shouldn’t be. And the whole subplot involving the land and the cousins just felt like an afterthought and unnecessary in the grand scheme of things.

Payne’s direction is also to blame here. Like I said, it’s his first movie to be emotion-based, but he handled it the same way that he did Sideways and Election, meaning he kept us at arm’s length, as if we are just spectators that aren’t supposed to get involved. The aforementioned Judy Greer scene, and the scene where Matt tells his oldest daughter that they are going to pull the plug on her mom are the only moments where I felt some emotion, but then we move on to something else, he doesn’t give us time to soak in these moments. With the exception of a few moments, it felt as if the film had no directorial identity, as if any random director could have made it. 

But that doesn’t mean his work is completely wasted. There were a couple of moments (when he’s running to his wife’s friends house and when he’s spying on his wife’s lover) where he used his signature quirks and they worked. And also, he got great performances out of the entire cast, and that’s nothing to scoff at. Clooney gives his absolutely best performance. He doesn’t play his usual ladies man, but a father with flaws, and he does it perfectly. Because of him I almost gave a damn about the scene where he said goodbye to his wife. Shailene Woodley, Robert Forster, and Matthew Lillard also give good performances that work despite the lack of effort in the writer’s part. But if there was one supporting performance from this film that should be getting awards attention it should be Judy Greer. She only has a couple of scenes, but she shows skills that I never knew she had.

The Descendants is an alright film mostly thanks to the performances and some emotional moments that stem from the story. But the writers and Alexander Payne’s direction don’t do much to make it go beyond that. If someone other than Payne might have directed it, someone who can handle emotion well, it would have been a much better movie. As it stands, this may be the most overrated film of 2011.

Rating: ★★½

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