Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The Descendants is what it is and what it is is overrated

I finally watched The Descendants. After hearing and reading so many rave reviews and considering the boatload of awards and nominations it’s racked up so far this season, I was expecting, well, a helluva good movie. What I got, however, was disappointment. When it comes to movies, sometimes expectations are a terrible thing. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is worth seeing and I’m glad I saw it, but it left me feeling like there should have been more. It’s got all of the potential and the grain of a better film in its premise, but it doesn’t quite pull it together to pull it off.

For me, it was hard to discern exactly what the film was trying to be. It’s called a dramatic comedy, but the drama was weak and the laughs just weren’t there. The film also explores two separate stories without any real connection. The film tells the story of Matt King (George Clooney), a father in the middle of a grave crisis: his wife, Elizabeth, lies comatose following a speed-boat accident and Matt is now forced to become the primary parent to his two daughters, Alex and Scottie, with whom he isn’t very close. Ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) is having a hard time coping with her mother’s hospitalization and is acting out at school and insulting other girls in her class. Seventeen-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley) has been away at boarding school thanks to her reckless ways with boys and drugs, and she’s boiling over with anger and confusion because she knows that her mother was having an affair. And it also tells the story of Matt King, the primary trustee of vast acres of family-owned prime land in Kauai that’s been passed down through several generations and his family’s decision about what to do with it.

With these two competing storylines, the film seemed splintered to me – dealing with one storyline and then the other, and the progression and pacing seemed off. If the essential story is of Matt King trying to reconnect with his daughters, then the story gets lost as it shifts focus from Matt and his daughters to the land sale to a third plotline – finding the man Elizabeth had an affair with.

While the film shifts across storylines, it introduces issues, but doesn’t follow through with them. The emotional pain at the heart of the film’s premise seems to vanish. The girls’ emotional and behavioral problems and their issues with their father seem to melt away when they all embark on a road trip to find Elizabeth’s lover. Alex’s drinking and rebelliousness cease to be a problem and she becomes like a Nancy Drew figure on an investigation. She also brings a friend along on the trip – a boy named Sid who’s dopey and abrupt and unnecessary to the story.

Then in an earlier scene, Matt and Scottie visit the girl whom Scottie insulted at school to apologize, and the story flips to that of the land. The girl’s mother, a native Hawaiian, tells Matt that many people hope that he will make the right decision about what to do with the land. There, the film touches upon the significance of the land to its people and about the serious implications that Matt’s decision to keep the land unspoiled or to sell it to developers yields. We hear this heartfelt sentiment from the woman, and then the issue isn’t raised again until Matt decides not to sell the land, an important decision that’s cancelled out all too smoothly and suddenly.

The film is often entertaining enough, with occasional flashes of excellence and it succeeds on some levels just as it underwhelms. The cinematography is stunning because we get the stripped down, lived-in Hawaii and not the picture-perfect postcard version, and it suits the film perfectly. There are some terrific acting moments, mostly from Shailene Woodley who’s dynamic and captivating in every scene. Supporting players Beau Bridges, Robert Forster and Judy Greer are memorable because they make the most of their minor roles. And George Clooney, well, he’s good too. The problem I have with George is not really his fault. It’s often hard for me when I watch him in a film to separate the character he’s portraying from George Clooney the movie star. It’s hard to see him as anything else. That said there are beautiful and believable expressions that allowed me at times to separate George Clooney from Matt King. The shock, pain and heartache he feels when his friends confirm that Elizabeth was having an affair and had planned to leave him felt so real and so true, it was tangible. The closure is the continuation of life itself, and that, I thought, was the film’s most effective part.

15 comments:

  1. Clooney and everybody else included is great but it’s really Payne who shines as the writer bringing out some funny humor but not without forgetting about the real rich moments of human drama. Good review C.S., as usual. A good film but not as great as I was expecting.

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  2. @Dan O - hey, it's JBT - I wrote the review. The cast was great, but I thought the story just didn't ring true at times, and if I compare this film to Payne's other work, namely 'Sideways,' then I think it pales in comparison.

    Agreed - it was mostly good, but it was a bit of a letdown for me.

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  3. I'd argue that the finding-the-wife's-lover story was part of the story of Matt and his daughters, since it was Alex who told him about the affair in the first place and they come along with Matt and even help him.

    Alex's rebelliousness is less of a problem because she's unburdened herself of a secret that has eaten away at her for a long time and she's finally working at earning some closure to it.

    And I'd also argue that even though we don't see the native Hawaiians perspective after that scene doesn't mean it's not on Matt's mind.

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  4. I liked The Descendants but I agree it's overrated. It's not particularly memorable and it sometimes feel too much like an Oscar-baiting movie. Clooney and Woodley are very good but I would have liked more dry humor out of this. Good review CS!

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  5. @Castor - This review is all JBT, as I have not seen the film yet. Hope to catch it this weekend if things workout.

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  6. Man, that stinks you were so let down. I guess it helped that I found the trailers and tv spots underwhelming because the film really blew me away and easily jumped to the top of my best of list for 2011.

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  7. I watched The Descendants twice. The second time it took me like 6 hours to complete it, I kept pausing and doing other things. I just don't "get it". I tried to write a review, but I have nothing to say. I understand what some people might like about the film, but none of it appeals to me.

    I didn't enjoy the subject matter, the surroundings, the characters, the acting, the pacing, the directing.

    I never liked Sideways either. So sue me...

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  8. @Rich – that’s a fair argument, but the whole thing didn’t ring true for me. I didn’t buy the notion that connecting with your daughters includes bringing them along to find the man their mother was having an affair with at ages 10 and 17.

    The film established Alex as having issues that I thought were smoothed over too easily, almost as though all that was going on (her mom’s coma and affair) would have had the adverse effect and would have driven her to rebel even more. Obviously Payne didn’t take that direction with her character and your idea that it served as closure is a good one, but again, it didn’t ring true for me.

    Alex’s emotional reaction in the pool when her father tells her that her mother is unlikely to recover was so honest and so real for me, and I feel like all of that pain was wiped away (we barely saw any trace of it) once she started playing detective with her dad.

    The significance of the land is very likely on Matt’s mind, but that’s just it – we’ve no idea how he felt, what he thought or why he decided not to sell. I realize that we’re probably supposed to draw our own conclusions about it and I’m fine with that – I just felt like that plotline lacked development and I felt dissatisfied with how it was wrapped up.

    @Castor - I was disappointed by my reaction to the film because I went in with such high hopes for it. There was so little humour, and like you, I didn't find it very memorable.

    @Lindsay - it stinks indeed. I sat down to watch it with excitement, but felt such disappointment when the credits rolled. It's not a terrible film by any means. I thought it was a good film and I'd recommend it to others, but it's not one of the year's best for me and I probably won't sit down and watch it again.

    I wish I had had your reaction to the film, I really do.

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  9. I've never read anything more true - I pretty much agree with everything here. I really didn't see how everyone liked this movie. I thought it was horribly one-dimensional, and that Sid guy is one of the worst written characters I've witnessed (that sounds harsh, but I don't think there's a person that exists that is just like him).

    If George Clooney wins the Oscar this year, I'll be angry. Sure, he did a good job, but his performance really isn't anything special. I just don't see the love for the film at all...

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  10. I suspected this might be a bit overrated. Good to see a more measured review. Must see this before the Oscars.

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  11. @Anna - giving it a second chance is commendable. It's not a film I'll watch again. I didn't understand all of the hype either, but I am glad that I saw the film.

    @Stevee Taylor - I'm glad that you could relate to my review of the film. I don't understand the fuss and certainly not the best picture consideration. I think Clooney's got a real shot of winning unless Jean Dujardin upsets. Critics and audiences seem to love his performance and the film - both good signs that he's a definite frontrunner for Oscar gold.

    @Pete - I sat down to watch it with good anticipation and was left disappointed. Hopefully that won't be your experience since many people really love the film.

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  12. I agree with your post. I reviewed The Descendants recently and I felt it was good, but not great. I didn't see what all the hype was about, but like you acknowledged that the hype might have created false expectations.

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  13. @Chip Lary - I think the hype definitely heightened my expectations going in, which is probably why I was so disappointed by the film. It's not bad, just not superb like all the hype suggests.

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  14. Anonymous1:19 pm

    I'm glad I found your review. I saw this movie on a pre-opening weekend screener, and expected more spark, more pizzaz, something, anything. Instead I found the movie lukewarm and unengaging. Nothing got resolved. Nothing really happened during the movie, in fact. Most of it was just the clean-up from stuff that had happened before the beginning of the movie, which we didn't get to see.

    Just now I looked at the reviews and thought to myself "they must have seen a different movie than I saw." I can't believe that so many people thought it was such a great movie -- I don't see what they saw in it.

    I found myself watching the scenes just to see what pattern George Clooney's Hawaiian shirts would be to keep myself awake.

    Like you said, its not an awful movie all around. I just think that the script was sorely lacking. I myself wouldn't recommend it to anyone.

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    1. I absolutely agree. I also felt like all of the people who raved about the film saw a different movie than I saw. I expected a lot more and I was disappointed. George Clooney's shirts were definitely interesting, and so was the soundtrack.

      Thanks for reading my review!

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