Friday, December 2, 2011
The Descendants (Limited Release Date: 11-16-2011)
As long as I can remember being non-sensically interested in the Oscar race, there's been one movie invited into each Best Picture hunt that I simply couldn't stand. Last year, it was The Kids Are Alright, the year before, The Blind Side. It's odd that, even when the number of nominated films was raised from 5 to 10, my number of detested flicks remained a meager singular. Most of the time, a vast majority of the time, in fact, I find most of Oscar's nods to be reasonable, but there is simply no way that you will ever be able to sway my stance on the likes of The Reader (2008), Babel (2006), or Million Dollar Baby (2004) (Crash is pretty bad too, but at least it had the common sense to be entertaining). Almost every other movie that was up for the big one during that time period gets a sturdy thumbs-up from me... but there's always one. This year, it's The Descendants.
Writer/Director Alexander Payne's first feature since Sideways stars George Clooney as Matt King, a 50-something Land Baron who works as a lawyer on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. King's life is presently in a state of extreme crisis: He's in charge of finding a buyer for the massive amounts of land that has been passed down to his family through their royal ancestors, and his wife has just suffered a boating accident that's left her in a coma. That leaves him in charge of his two girls, the young and surly Scottie (Amara Miller), and her older, rebellious sister Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), his relationships with both being strained at best. To make matters worse, Alexandra reveals to Matt that his wife had been cheating on him at the time of her accident, just as the three are about to embark on a trip to report the news of her ailing health to everyone she knew.
Praise where praise is due: Both Clooney and Woodley are fantastic in this movie. Who knew Gorgeous George would be so believable as a khaki-wearing, sloppy-haircut-sporting everyman? His character flips between moments of clownish social clumsiness, and piercing, tangible hurt. Woodley, whose part is written to color between the lines, makes something out of her standard teenage angst-athon, her arch and emotions never less than believable, her father-daughter chemistry with Clooney completely undeniable. Alright, there you go, Descendants, I gave you you're praise. Now, on to the main attraction:
The Descendants is a movie that is designed to coax emotion out of its viewers, and while it certainly has a few successful moments in this regard, almost all of them are cheap, and unearned. Clooney's King is supposed to have three major concerns in the movie: The health of his wife, the love of his daughters, and the land that he must sell. The movie fails in all three regards. Payne completely forgets to explain what there is to like about his spouse, placing emphasis on her infidelity and the rough patch of marriage that immediately proceeded her indiscretion, failing to describe her actual personality in any way, save one scene where corny faux-hawaiin music all but drowns out King's complimentary musings. Having any sort of sense of what they were like together in their good times kind of seems like a must to make this story and its structure work. The bond between Clooney and Woodley is well-developed, but he never has a single moment of genuine connection with his younger daughter, a character who was seemingly invented only to flip off other minor characters as a means for comic relief. Finally, the issue with the land is such an after-thought through-out the film, that the moments near the end where it reminds you to care about the sub-plot are almost laughable. And what happens when he is finally about to make a statement on the land that might be of interest? Yep, you guessed it; more corny hawaiian music drowning out a scene that might have required some real writing.
You might think that the reason for these short-comings is a simple issue of biting off more than you can chew, but you'd be wrong. The Descendants has all kinds of time on its hands, an exhaustive two hours, in fact, but it prefers to spend its minutes dolling out endless establishing shots of Hawaiian landscapes, at least ten we're-going-from-this-place-to-this-place montages, and one person after another being as horrible as humanly possible to poor Matt King. I understand that his constant trials are supposed to further endear us to him, but when so many scenes are constructed with the sole purpose of throwing your mostly-kind-hearted protagonist to the damn wolves, it starts to feel like a frustrated, mean-spirited exercise. As if King's trials weren't enough, Payne distributes a parade of Oscar-friendly problems to minor characters to make sure that as many tissues meet their end as possible. Didn't think you'd care about King's tough-as-nails father-in-law? Well, how about when we bring in the fact that his wife has Alzheimer's? Thought Alexandra's dumb-ass tag-a-long boyfriend was just here for comic relief, did you? WRONG! He has a dead parent, too! Now you have to care about him and take him seriously! No one here besides King is actually developed; We simply learn one or two details about each of them that are meant to define them as a character from that point forth.
I've always been up and down on Payne, only that my ups are absurdly high, and my downs are perilously low. Both Election and Sideways strike me as some of the best dramadies of the last many years, but About Schmidt lost me with its slow-motion pacing. The Descendants has the same problem in terms of keeping its heart-rate up, but its issues run far deeper than that. I honestly view it as offensive; Offensive in the way that it uses real-world problems and ailments in shallow, under-developed ways in order to extract emotions that it hasn't earned, and offensive in the way that it expects its audience to fall for such a transparent hoax. I'm sorry to go all, "fire and brimstone," but it seems like I might be the only one out there who feels this way about this movie, so I'm going to shout it. The simple inclusion of sickness and familial trauma does not make a good movie. You have to actually do things with those elements, expand on them, explain them, justify them, go deeper with them, rather than spending two straight hours bending my arm backwards until tears fall out as I look at some lovely scenery. Any lousy story-teller can make memory loss and comas emotionally effecting; they're charged subjects that will always get a knee-jerk reaction. Playing them as your trump card and expecting to win Oscars for it is just plain manipulative and wrong. Clooney and Woodley are good enough to bump this thing up a letter grade: Without their terrific efforts, this one might have been the very first F in the history of Hype Starts Here. Instead, it's in the hunt to be the movie of the year. Go figure.