The Descendants 2011 ★★½
This review reportedly contains spoilers.
I can handle the truth.
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 plot point – 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. She also brings a friend along on the trip – a boy named Sid who’s dopey and abrupt and unnecessary to the story.
Then there’s an earlier scene when 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 concerning 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 moviemaking 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 beautifully. 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 simple continuation of life itself, and that, I thought, was the film’s most effective part.