To any cinematic follower, or dabbler in pop-culture, or even those who consider themselves as cultured as every narcissistic character in a Woody Allen film, Alexander Payne’s recent award season buzzed film, The Descendants, is the movie to watch for that Oscar gold. (It’s recent Golden Globe win doesn’t hurt either.) It certainly has all the ingredients of an award contender: George Clooney; George Clooney out of his element as anything but a suave bachelor; Fox Searchlight indie spirit with the ten-year-old daughter’s penchant for using her middle finger and talking about “masturbation movies”; and finally, the sniffles heard in the theater that are assuredly not a result of the common cold. The Descendants is a tear-jerker. What’s startling, and what’s applauded by the onslaught of television ads promoting the film, is its ability to be both heart-wrenchingly tragic and laugh-out-loud funny. That element of the film works beautifully, but not every element of the film is deserving of myriad trophy accolades. Perhaps, and I don’t feel it’s risky to say, George Clooney’s name alone carries this movie closer to critical acclaim than it maybe deserves.
The Descendants follows Matt King (George Clooney), an understudy of a parent and husband, who must juggle the lives of his complicated daughters as he deals with the pending death of his wife (Patricia Hastie). Grief, family grapples, father/daughter discord, and the realization that bad things happen all are given ample screen time amidst the not-so-perfect backdrop of Hawaii’s lush islands. Throw in a little infidelity, a complicated family decision about what to do with their land trust of a yet to be commercialized patch of pure Hawaiian soil, and a hard-ass father-in-law played by the perfectly cast Robert Forster, and you’ve got a complicated plot to fit alongside the complex matter of dealing with untimely death.
What works well works very well: Clooney’s believability as a struggling father and his impeccable chemistry with the surprise star Shailene Woodley.
Woodley plays Matt’s seventeen-year-old daughter with a dirty mouth, a drug-littered past, and shaky relationship with both parents rooted in anger, betrayal, and misunderstanding. And while on the surface, Woodley’s character is entirely clichéd and exactly like every other troubled teen that’s ever graced the screen, Woodley adds a surprising element of authenticity to the role.
Coming from an actress who is best known for her work on the horribly written and horribly acted teen series The Secret Life of an American Teenager, I didn’t expect much from Shailene Woodley, but I was pleasantly surprised. She perfectly captures an authentic American teenager in The Descendants and you can read every glare at her father, every loving touch on the shoulders of her younger sister Scottie (Amara Miller), and every cross of her arms at an uncomfortable situation as actions of a true, struggling, defensive seventeen-year-old girl. I’m not completely convinced that she does it on purpose. In some ways, her trying too hard to come off as a volatile teenager makes her portrayal of one even more effective. By adding an extra dose of teen-attitude, and piling on the eye rolls, her character becomes more real almost by accident—capturing the excess emotions that teenagers often dish out by nearly over-acting herself. In the process, Woodley becomes the one to watch, taking attention away from her typical scene-stealing costar, George Clooney, and commanding the screen with her casual, makeup-less, girl next door appeal.
But what is truly a pleasure to watch is the growing closeness between Alexandra and her father. In an expertly inserted sub-plot, Alex admits to her father that her mother was cheating on him. This triggers a string of comically rich scenes involving the stalking and confronting of Matt’s wife’s lover which creates countless moments for skillfully tiered character development. The subplot is particularly effective in showcasing the growing bond between Alex and her father as they work together to seek self-satisfying revenge.
“Don’t do that,” Matt tells Alex as they make plans to visit the cheater, Brian Speer (played by Matthew Lillard), at his rented beach cottage and confront him, “Don’t go getting excited.” But she is excited, and he’s excited, and the complex nature of the situation—confronting the man that you’re dying wife/mother cheated with, alongside the drama of the real emotions involved, is too interesting to not get excited about even as audience members. It is through this mystery that Alex and Matt are solving that we see their relationship build and shift. And the idea of bonding over something so heavy, and being able to convey it with comic appeal is one of the high points of the film.
The scene where all this culminates, when the cheater’s family and Matt’s family meet, is priceless old-school comedy gold where a character is cornered in an incredibly awkward situation and struggles to get out of it. It’s hands down the best scene of the movie. And all the while, amidst the comedy, Clooney subtly captures the rage, sadness, and forgiveness of a man who is losing his wife not to the man who she cheated with, but to bad luck and a boating accident. It’s a unique emotion, and one that Clooney conveys in a way that makes the audience sigh in anguish and just as quickly laugh with pleasure.
And while this plot point to find his wife’s secret lover is effective, there are other plot points that fall flat. In many ways, the movie ties the plot too tightly, making too many knots. Some characters are unnecessary. The first one that’d be on my chopping block is Sid—Alex’s dumb friend (played by Nick Krause) who tags along on the family’s adventures. His pure purpose is comic relief, and while his character involves humorous punches to the face when he says ridiculous things, he’s only good for a dumb laugh that we’ve seen countless times before. The big mistake with his character was trying to bring heart to it. In an awkward and forced scene, Matt confronts Sid when he can’t sleep and Sid opens up about his father’s recent death. The scene intends to parallel Alex’s mother’s pending death. It was supposed to humanize Sid, make him more than the dumb teen who talks like a surfer dude and cracks lame “retarded’ jokes. But it’s ineffective. Clooney seems to have no sympathy for Sid, no chemistry with Sid, and nothing enlightening or satisfying was accomplished by their late night chat.
Another woven plot strand deals with the land trust Matt and his cousins must decide to sell or not. This plot line introduces ten ubiquitous cousins that pop into scenes throughout the movie, urging Matt to go along and sell their land in order to pave the way for million dollar resorts and golf courses that’ll give each of the cousins some extra zeros on their bank statements. The decision to sell is a big one and everyone has an opinion, but the plot meanders with this storyline. In one scene, the decision to sell the land is given a lot of attention and weight, and in the next scene, Matt argues that he has bigger things on his mind like the death of his wife. It’s difficult to understand how much weight this decision was intended to have in the plot. What purpose does it serve except to introduce way too many excess characters who superficially care about their dying family member, but mostly just care about their own pockets? And predictably, in the end, after countless uncomfortable scenes with locals insisting that selling is a bad idea because of traffic and family legacies, Matt decides not to the sell the land, but what purpose does this serve? Yay! Hawaii will stay pretty! Yay, the family will still be able to camp on the land like they used to with their mother. So what, we understand that Matt has changed? That he wants to hold on to what’s his? We understand he’s changed without this plot point. We see it in his interactions with his daughters. We see it in how they respect him, how they understand him, how they walk next to him by choice.
The resolution about his decision not to sell feels incomplete. We’re left with so many questions—how much did the fact that Brian Speer would benefit financially from the sell factor into his decision not to? How do his cousins take the news? We’re led to believe not well, but at the same time, there isn’t one character who feels particularly strong about the issue. We’re given a batch of superfluous cousins to add to the plot who all have opinions, but none of them have strong enough ones to warrant our interest. The conflict is flat. The resolution is mute. The audience is happy with his decision because it feels right, but at what benefit for the character that wasn’t achieved elsewhere?
At times, the film feels like it was shoved into a plastic bottle in order to contain some of the drama. It’s squelched in places where the drama could thrive. Sometimes, the drama doesn’t hit at hard as it could. And while this light-hearted tragedy seems to be the goal of the filmmakers, it would illicit more emotion from the audience if the weight of the drama was allowed to flourish.
The scene where Matt tells Alexandra that her mother is going to die ends too quickly. The news is given too flatly, the beautiful shot of her crying underwater ends too immediately, and the angry attack at her father for telling her the news while she was in the pool cuts the emotion and ends the scene just as the weight of it is beginning to resonate. It’s too rushed. The next scene follows too quickly, and the characters and the audience are cheated of their time to grieve.
The same is true in the scene where Alex tells Matt that her mother was cheating on him. Clooney plays the role of wounded bird beautifully, where you can almost physically see the blow the news is to his face and his composure, but just as this resonates, again, we’re given a humorous scene where Clooney goofily runs down the street on his way to talk to his wife’s closest friends about what he’s just heard, tripping on his sandals, and looping around the boulevard.
I understand that the gem of the film is its ability to allow comedy and drama to co-habitat, and while this is achieved tonally through the narrative twists, the filmmakers’ penchant to immediately rush to a joke snubs some of the movie’s ability to hit hard with the devastating emotion of the scenes. It has all of the pieces needed in order to get the audience crying with laughter while retrieving their hearts from the popcorn-littered floor, and in many cases it does, but it misses an opportunity to master both comedy and drama by cutting to comedy too quickly, and refusing to cut a few too many superfluous plot-lines.
The pure pleasure, though, of watching Matt’s relationship with his daughters morph and grow in an entirely organic and humanist way is worth struggling through a few awkward Sid-involved scenes and one too many cousins in Hawaiian shirts. And the film’s final shot of the three remaining members of the King clan sharing ice cream underneath the blanket their mother was cloaked in in the hospital is a beautiful send-off, and a near-perfect bow on the entire story. It encapsulates the characters and how they’ve changed, starting out separate, on opposite ends of the game board, and ending up amicably together—they may have lost their mother, but they have their father back. And thankfully, the freshly-black-eyed Sid is no where to be found.