Alexander Payne takes the easy way out time and again in The Descendants, a tale that wants to be mature but can’t help shortchanging its drama through constant reliance on its protagonist’s unimpeachable nobility. Lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) is a man faced with two unavoidable deadlines regarding his need to let go of the past: his wife is in a fatal coma and has a pull-the-plug living will that must soon be executed, and his family’s enormous centuries-old real estate holdings must by law be sold. The former is hardly a choice, and the latter’s outcome is never in question – especially since Matt is encouraged early on by a local woman to not sell his land, and he later visits the property and is told (foreshadowing!) by his youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) that she wishes she could have camped there like her mother and older sister Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) did. On top of these issues, as well as Scottie’s profane acting-out in school and Alexandra’s drunken troublemaking, Matt’s in-crisis life is thrown for a further loop when he learns that his wife was cheating on him before her catastrophic accident, a plot twist that might have worked in this overcrowded script (based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel) if it hadn’t turned out that her extramarital paramour (Matthew Lillard) had intimate, and thoroughly contrived, ties to Matt’s land deal. Payne’s direction is competent but his depiction of Hawaii as a place of both everyday suburban normalcy and great beauty would have struck a stronger chord if that point weren’t overtly articulated by the film’s unnecessary and lazy intro narration. Similarly, Clooney’s performance treads a winning line between serious pathos and comedic likability, yet his Matt is too often driven not by real anger, frustration and vengeance as much as fantasy-land holier-than-thou dignity and decency. Consequently, the film’s portrait of both letting go and embracing one’s family and heritage (replete with more than one sequence of Matt staring at sepia-hued ancestral photos) repeatedly fails to find a true emotional note – a fact never more stark than in Matt’s wholly unbelievable decision to be accompanied on his various dramedic shenanigans by Alexandra’s dim-witted friend Sid (Nick Krause), with whom Matt eventually bonds in a scene of near-stunning phoniness.
Thank you, thank you, thank you for your insights. I was beginning to think I was the only person who sees how dismally this movie fails. I am desperate to understand why so many people are enamored by such a weak story.
Posted by: Jen | December 12, 2011 at 05:03 PM
I'm finding myself unable to be remotely objective about this movie, probably given the fact that I just lived through something about 70+% exactly the same (if only we had that much land to our name, but I digress).
That said, while I enjoyed it and readily identified with the material, something felt missing. I'll have to return to it in time (maybe a long time) to see how I really feel.
For now, I can say that I think the wife's infidelity on top of everything works, if only because it was discovered in my mother's final months that she had had an affair some time ago. This actually evened things up between them. I love them both but sometimes ignorance is bliss.
I can say with assurance, however, that this had the best opening/closing bookend shots of the year. If the whole movie had hit me as hard as those did, it'd be at least my number 6, guaranteed. For the time being, it won't even appear in my top 20.
Posted by: rob | December 12, 2011 at 11:10 PM
This movie was flat to me. I wanted to like it more. It just left me cold. The performances were solid, but not special. This movie is crazy overhyped.
Posted by: Dan | December 14, 2011 at 12:08 AM
Good review. Good comments. I kept hoping this movie would get better, i.e. that I could feel something emotional about these characters, but it was just dull. Terribly contrived, play-acting; convoluted writing. I really can't say anything good about it. Well, the Hawaiian scenery was nice.
Posted by: Susan | December 17, 2011 at 01:44 PM
"The Descendants" was a huge disappointment. Nothing came together for me. George Clooney tried his best to act like a middle-class father and husband but it was too much of a reach; he was too far out of his element. The other actors were unbelievable as well.
The problem stemmed from a weak, implausible story line.
While it might have sounded good in a 3-minute spiel to the Money Guys, in execution the story was disjointed, occasionally ridiculous and totally one-dimensional.
Posted by: Susan Morris | December 31, 2011 at 10:09 AM
A great relief to read the only intelligent and piercingly accurate review of this fairly pathetic Made for T Movie, that is getting such mega- hype, one has to wonder--am I an alien? Thanks to the above wonderfully insightful and precisely accurate take, I now know--Im not alone. Thank you!
THANK YOU!!!!! did I say THANK YOU!!!! THANK YOU!
Posted by: Aviva Ararat | January 02, 2012 at 11:25 AM
Im meant made for TV movie
Posted by: Aviva Ararat | January 02, 2012 at 11:26 AM
This movie was terrible - what are people thinking with academy award potential? It was so contrived and phony from beginning to end. Not to mention that they ruined Hawaii's beauty by including Clooney's mug and his pretentiously painful daughters in every scene. And that moron kid he turns to for advice? Duh.
Posted by: Jen | January 12, 2012 at 03:05 PM
Thanks for the great review as I think you well demonstrate the failings in the movie that other reviewers seem to have missed. In fact, despite my praise for your review, I think you have also missed the point of the movie.
The very clear (to me) "message" of this movie is that communication is not simply a tool we use to exploit the human environment that surrounds us, it is fundamental to who we are as human beings. Not one of the characters in the movie show any capacity to communicate at an authentic level at any stage. The closest we get is Matt's final good-bye to his best friend wife, it is just a pity he wasn't able to communicate that to his wife when she was alive to receive it.
Remorselessly the movie does not deliver any hope that Matt, his children or anyone else has "learned" to communicate from the experience of his wife's death. This is delivered with beautiful pathos in the final scene of the movie where Matt and his 2 children are huddled (as penguins) under a blanket sharing the eating of comfort food whilst watching a documentary on Emperor Penguins, the last large lifeform left on a continent that once lived in tropical splendour - like Hawaii - and is now a cold and forbidding wasteland.
Posted by: Stephen McCredie | January 14, 2012 at 06:35 PM
I agree with this review. I loved SIDEWAYS and ELECTION but to me THE DESCENDANTS felt dull and dog-eared. It's as if Payne's work has become a formula or brand. This movie reminded me a lot of WIN-WIN, another Fox Searchlight pseudo-indie.
Posted by: tori | January 18, 2012 at 01:13 AM
I had to search for a review of this Movie that reflected my reactions. Thought I was alone! So schmaltzy and saccharine. I cannot believe the hype and glowing reviews. Unbelievable.
Posted by: Mel | January 18, 2012 at 07:24 AM
I loved THE DESCENDANTS and so did my two, Big Island friends. However, one major problem I had was that Clooney's many cousins in the film are all haole/white and even look WASP! Clooney's ancesters start out, as he explains in the beginning voice over, Hawaiian/Caucasian, and, after more that a hundred years living in the Islands, they would have inter-racially married and mixed like crazy! I know, 'cause I lived on Oahu for five years. But not a mixed-race face amongst the cousins. That's not how people look in Hawaii and a huge mistake for the movie. I hope that wasn't there way of making some kind of politically correct, Liberal statement, however false!
Posted by: peter jay solari | January 19, 2012 at 07:06 PM
To Peter Jay...if the cousins were cast looking more authentic it probably would not match up well with Clooney's appearance.
I agree with the review and mediocrity of the movie. The main problem for me is that the movie wants us to feel the weight of the accident, impending loss, and the effect Elizabeth's actions have had on the family, but we simply have no development of Elizabeth's character to feel any sympathy or emotional weight. Instead of the cold narration, flashbacks might have been used to bridge the character of Elizabeth's past into the current drama. What we're left with is a story that's not very remarkable or memorable despite some good acting.
Posted by: Rich | January 21, 2012 at 11:40 AM
I must say that I enjoyed George Clooney's performance. I think he deserved the Golden Globe Award.
Posted by: Film | January 26, 2012 at 06:14 AM