Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Understudy Parent Sells The Viewer Completely On The Descendants!

The Good: Funny, Interesting characters, Wonderful performances, Not oppressive in the mood
The Bad: Does not do much with the idea once it is established.
The Basics: The Descendants is funny and difficult without being miserable to watch, making for a solid character drama.

Usually, right after the Oscars, I have movies that competed for the Best Picture Oscar that I want to see, regardless of the fact that they lost for the big prize. It is also a time of year that it is especially difficult for me to get my wife to watch movies with me because she usually rails about how I am (largely) watching movies for the purpose of reviewing. I think, however, that I must have asked her out to see The Descendants enough times while it was still in theaters to convince her that I actually wanted to see the movie. So, last night, we sat together and took in the film The Descendants, which did not win the Best Picture, but I already add to my list of movies that should have beaten The Artist for the grand prize (I understand, I am going into The Artist biased against it!). And we enjoyed The Descendants.

The Descendants is a thematically gloomy movie that manages to deal with difficult issues that surround death without ever being oppressive. My wife, who has never quite forgiven me for having her watch Magnolia (reviewed here!) with her on our first weekend together, enjoyed the fact that while The Descendants wrestled with many of the same issues, it did not make her want to take her own life when the film was over. I like any movie that is smart and does not make my wife contemplate suicide just by watching it! In all seriousness, though, The Descendants deserves most of the accolades heaped upon it and is a solidly good movie. The Descendants is based upon a novel that I have not read, so (as always) this is a very pure review only of the cinematic rendition of The Descendants.

Matt King is a Hawaiian lawyer whose family owns the last virgin land on the islands, land that is in a trust that will be legally dissolved within seven years. Matt is the trustee of that land and he is working with the rest of the family to determine which bid for the land the family will accept, making everyone much, much richer in the process. But Matt’s focus is divided when his wife is in a boating accident and falls into a coma. As Matt struggles to pay attention to his ten year-old daughter, Scottie, who has begun trying to express her feelings regarding her comatose mother, he discovers how ill-suited he is to being a single parent. Matt and Scottie hop a plane to one of the other islands to recover Alex, Matt’s seventeen year-old daughter. Alex, who is in a boarding school for youth recovering from drug addition and behavioral problems, hardly comes willingly and when Matt reveals to her that Elizabeth’s living will is in effect, she reaches out to Sid.

Despite Sid tagging along, Alex’s revelation to Matt that Elizabeth was having an affair on him – which is quickly confirmed by some neighbor/friends of the family – sets Matt on a quest to find the man who his wife was in love with. After meeting with Elizabeth’s parents, Matt and the other three head to the island with the King family land to track down Brian Speer, a real estate agent who was the man Elizabeth was having the affair with.

The Descendants is a weird emotional journey where, once the pieces are on the board (in this case, the impending death, the affair, the children and the identity of the man with whom Elizabeth had the affair), the film has to figure out what to do with them all. The Descendants has a decent set-up and the truth is, it did not go in the most predictable or disappointing direction it could have. Instead, The Descendants works very hard to illustrate a profound and adult emotional journey and it succeeds as much as a movie can. One of the few serious detractions to The Descendants as a movie – which contains several memorable lines and a few very funny moments in between the hard-hitting emotional scenes – is that much of the focus is on an intangible emotional journey. As a result, portions of The Descendants come across as slow and moody as opposed to anything that uses the visual medium well.

This is not to say that The Descendants is a bad movie. It is not. But co-writer and director Alexander Payne has to let the camera linger on George Clooney’s Matt and the Hawaiian scenery several times throughout the film simply to let the movie breathe and give moments their proper weight. Payne succeeds, though and watching The Descendants is like watching someone else’s real life. The problematic aspect of that, of course, is that not every moment of real life is engaging and dramatic or even noteworthy. Especially when internal emotional processing is what one’s life has become, it is hardly cinematic and there are several moments in The Descendants where Matt is processing, making a decision (punch Sid or not, kick him out of the car or not, what to say to Brian Speer, etc.) where it is clear Payne is capturing the character mulling over his next move.

The Descendants is a character-driven piece that works, as much as it can, because the characters are generally interesting. Matt is appropriately shocked to learn his wife was having an affair and he balances his anger with his desire to give his family a chance to remember Elizabeth in a positive light. But Matt does not truly develop or change in the course of the film. Instead, he meanders through the land decision and once he learns of the affair, he becomes fixated on meeting Brian Speer, without a real plan about what he intends to say or do when he does. In fact, once he declares that he wants to meet Brian Speer to give him the opportunity to say goodbye to Elizabeth, he pretty much does just that (and not much more).

In some ways, The Descendants is really about Alexandra’s journey through her anger at both Elizabeth and her father. Rebellious and willful, Alex had a falling out with Elizabeth before the film began, over her knowledge of the affair. Over the course of The Descendants, Alex overcomes her raw anger to help empower Matt to live up to his desire to face Brian Speer. More than that, she comes to recognize that Matt is actually trying to parent now and she comes to respond to that effort in a way the girl at the beginning of the movie would not have. Even Sid is given a scene where he is able to illustrate he is more than just a dumb sidekick, so The Descendants takes a lot of time to develop memorable characters, both primary and peripheral.

On the acting front, The Descendants is very good. While early in the film, acting from child actors, like Amara Miller (Scottie) is shaky and Nick Krause as Sid seemed awfully derivative of Patrick Fugit’s performance in Saved! (reviewed here!), The Descendants has all of the emotional gravitas one expects from a film starring George Clooney. Clooney expertly slouches his way through the role of Matt King in order to more realistically portray a regular guy (albeit with a lot of money) who feels the weight of the world bearing down upon him. Judy Greer is her usual wonderful self as Julie Speer, but her performance is easily trumped by Matthew Lillard, who plays her character’s husband, Lillard deftly proves that he can play a dramatic part without even a hint of irony, humor or stupidity and he is the pleasant surprise on the acting front of The Descendants.

Much of the performance front for The Descendants is dominated by Shailene Woodley. The Descendants is the first work I have seen Woodley in, but she seems to fill the same essential niche as Emma Roberts. Woodley plays the role of Alex with an evolution from bratty to mature that works surprisingly well. She develops the character from one who is outwardly emotional to one who can show some restraint in the film’s later scenes. Even as Alex bites her tongue, Woodley infuses a sense that the character still has something to say, in the set of her jaw, the way her shoulders tighten, the determination in her gaze. Woodley is the one to watch in The Descendants.

Now on DVD, The Descendants comes with trailers, a commentary track (which we did not have a chance to listen to before we had to return the disc) and featurettes on the making of the film. The Descendants is a solid movie, even if it is not always the most interesting one or does not have much of a statement to make beyond “this is life.”

For other films with significant emotional journeys for the protagonist, be sure to check out my reviews of:
American Beauty
The Road Home
The Royal Tenenbaums


For other film reviews, please be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for other films and television shows I have reviewed!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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