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Friday, December 2, 2011

The Descendants (Limited Release Date: 11-16-2011)

Alright (*Cracks Knuckles*), time for a take-down:

        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.

Grade: D-


  1. I recently discovered your blog after starting my own at, which is still in its embryonic stages. You clearly have an informed viewpoint & talent for writing expressively about something you enjoy. Keep up the great work!

    I gave The Descendants a B+. I won't be mad if it's in the top 10 for Best Picture, but I've seen 10 films I liked better this year.

    Respectfully, here's where we differ in opinion:
    I don't agree that viewers need to have their emotions earned by seeing loving moments between characters or glimpses into their lives before we meet them. In this case, viewers identify with a dysfunctional family. We all know (or are) people in families like this, and we sense the unconditional love that they have for eachother. Some of the most narratively successful films bypass backstory in favor of dealing almost exclusively with the present situations & decisions of the characters. This film immediately delves into the experience of a man at the center of 3 crises and acknowledges his role in causing them and, more importantly, addressing them with some balls. The story is built on his eldest daughter empowering him to confront his wife’s indiscretions, transforming him from backup dad to family backbone (in all 3 crises created by his prior absenteeism). And the pending land sale is referenced so early & often that it’s not a sub-plot, but a part of the triumvirate. The audience naturally considers along with him, his reasons for selling or not & to which type of buyer.

    That's one example of how we identify with his emotional state. Without having experienced it, I can also identify with the notion that when someone cheats on you, thoughts of confronting their lover can consume you...especially if you cannot confront your spouse as in this case. I have had someone really close to me become injured, comatose & die. I can relate to the fact that it changes your mindset after it shakes up your world. Clooney's character is coming to terms with the fact that he's been a pretty shitty dad, and husband, and has not dealt with the land issue head-on. Alexander Payne presents this turning point in these people's lives & does a great job of capturing the feelings being felt in a way real people would feel them...with humanity & absurdity (it's similar to "50/50" in that regard).

    I agree that the protagonist’s privilege & the movie’s pathos can feel unearned at certain times, but The Descendants is offered as an ode to imperfection. It shows him as an imperfect guy with an imperfect family. He tells us that his anchorless lifestyle & unreliability have gotten him to this triple juncture of broken marriage, pending sale of sentimental scenery, & rudderless fatherhood. What we see in the movie is his self-actualized predicament making an anchor out of him.

    Then the we have the scene at the end where the girls have to go into the hospital room & say goodbye to their mother. As Alexandra accompanies Scottie into that life-changing moment, the Cloon-dog shares a knowing look of appreciation with Alex for being the big sister & stand-in mother figure who relates more closely to her little sister's experience than her dad possibly can. That was the one moment that felt overtly designed to elicit my emotion...and it succeeded. And it was earned earlier by Alex helping her Dad seek-out and talk shit to Matthew Lillard on behalf of their broken & healing family. That was the elusive connection they & we were looking for, solidified by the closing scene of the former rebel teen, prior absentee dad, & previously unvalidated kid all sharing a moment of comfort for the first time on film.

    Anyway, that's my own reading of the movie, knowing we all see artwork from different angles. I appreciate your opinion for stirring my own thoughts. I look forward to reading your other posts on past & pending films. Cheers!

  2. Well, thank you very much for your flattering words! I checked out your blog earlier today, and it's looking pretty good. I like the format of it a lot, and how easy it is to navigate, and will undoubtably check out your opinions in the future.

    Thank you for such a lengthy dissection of your thoughts on the movie. I will say that viewing the problems as all starting from King's negligence before we see the story is a very compelling point. That's an interesting way of framing the movie.

    I'm not saying that movies need flashbacks to characters who are now being missed, but I do think that you kind of need a sense of who they were, or what is now missing. Clooney's character says at the beginning that, if she ever gets better, he would sell the land and focus on fixing them. Fix them back to what? We're given the impression that they hardly talked near the end, but we don't even have the slightest clue what she offered him in that relationship. Kinda sounds like she was a wild child, but that's really all we get. For a movie that's all structured off of missing a character, it seems to me like they should have explained to the audience what was worth missing about her, even if we don't have to use a "ten years earlier," style flash back. There are all kinds of ways to make your audience feel the weight of a character who isn't presently there, and I firmly believe that this movie should have tried at least one of them. I just wanted any description of her personality at all. Even a, "she was always so tidy and neat," would have been a whole hell of a lot more than we actually got.

    The land is mentioned through-out the film, but it's not like you ever get a feeling about how much it means to him. The closest we get is when they stand on that edge, over-looking the land, and his youngest says that she wishes she could camp, and he says NOTHING. You can feel his anxiety over the best way to get rid of it, and honor his ancestors, but a literal connection to the land itself is missing completely, so when he makes the classic, "Good Guy," decision to not sell it to, "Evil Tourist Trappers," it comes off as pretty damn undercooked.

    I totally get the him restructuring his life in light of recent events, how you reshape your memories when people go away for good, but for us, the audience, to really connect to his plight, I just wanted to know more about them as a couple. And if the story is his coming of age, and becoming the family backbone, then why aren't we made to care whatsoever about the littlest kid? He spends the whole movie not telling her anything, yelling at her whenever she does something goofy, and telling Alex and Sid to take her out of the room over and over again, all so that we can end with a shot of her father handing her ice cream, which, of course, shows us that everything is going to be a-ok. I understand the shot as a symbol, but how did we get here? When do they even once have a conversation between the two of them that isn't filled with yelling, or him telling her to change something about herself? Does he ever ask her what's wrong? Or if he can help her in anyway? I see what you're saying about how the sisters would always have a greater sense of empathy with each other than with him, but is it to much to ask that, if we're going to end on the ice-cream-eating, happily-ever-after couch, we at least see him TRY to connect to his daughter, even if his attempt turned out to be a failure?

    Anyways, that's what I've got... and 50/50 is way, way better than this movie. You won't hear me hate on that guy.

  3. Didn't like the movie...not enough background of the characters to feel anything substantial for them. I think the reality of his wife dying would have brought friends and family out to support him and the girls...not just an occasional meal in the freezer and/or a friend applying make up one time. Heck, put some lip balm on the poor mom's lips...that's the least anyone could do. I didn't hate the movie, but it didn't bring me to tears and the girls seemed rather non-chalant about their mother dying. A few tears here and there, but I did not see overall emotion that one would feel in these circumstances. i watched both my parents die and I didn't think this was realistic to how a man and his girls would have reacted. I also doubt they would leave her side after the plug was pulled not knowing when she would take her last breath. Hunting for the lover would be the last thing on the mind of most husband's if the wife was literally going to be taking her last breath.
    The last scene was sweet, but did it imply that they are all now united as a family...with Matt having the love and support of his girls and their best interest at heart? Perhaps they could have added a heart to heart conversation with the dad and girls to admit the failings of their relationship prior to their mother's death and how they are "all" they have left and that life will be different..but, no...they eat ice-cream, and it's all better...didn't do it for me..Grade: D