Posted December 10, 2011 by Daniel Hodgson in
The main problem with The Descendants is that it begins where a better movie would have ended, and characters spend a lot of time speechifying to the comatose body of a woman we know only because the other characters describe her to us.
Matt King (George Clooney) watches helplessly as his wife lies comatose in bed. The doctor tells him that her condition is deteriorating, and she’ll never wake up. Her living will dictates that they pull the plug. While dealing with letting go of his wife and breaking the news to his friends and family, he must learn how to be a father to his 9 and 17-year-old daughters, incorrigible Scottie (Amara Miller) and rebellious Alexandra “Alex” (Shailene Woodley), whom he’s been distant from. If that weren’t enough, Alex breaks it to Matt that his wife had been having an affair before her accident. And so Matt sets off with his daughters in tow to find and confront the man who had been sleeping with his wife.
The premise just doesn’t make for compelling drama. The Other Guy (Matthew Lillard) is found and confronted easily and without danger. Other than angry feelings, there’s nothing between them. The affair was in the past, so it’s not a matter of who ends up with the woman, given her condition. So what’s at stake here? Well, Matt is the descendant of Hawaiian royalty, and trustee to acres of virgin land. In seven years, his family may lose the land due to legal reasons, and seek to sell it. This means they sell the land and make a ton of money, or they don’t and keep the beautiful land in their family. Woe to the wealthy and their dilemmas.
Ultimately, the film is about Matt connecting with his wayward daughters, and their misbehavior is done for laughs. Alex is outspoken and foul-mouthed, and it rubs off on her younger sister, who chants a few choice words. Clooney as Matt looks like he’s at his wits’ end, and his frustration with his daughters and anger at his wife and her lover comes off as genuine. Clooney and Woodley play off of one another well, particularly in the inevitable confrontation with his wife’s lover. The father and daughter have become a team, the journey having united them.
Much of the running time is devoted to shots of the Hawaiian landscape, granting The Descendants a travelogue-ish feel. As he bonds with his daughters, Matt gets in touch with the land that has been in his family for generations. The focus on backdrop makes for languid pacing in a story that is all falling action from the get-go anyway. The Descendants, awkwardly adapted from the novel of the same name, does not translate well to screen. A voice-over by Clooney provides an unwieldy info-dump at pic’s start that brings the audience up to speed on Matt’s ancestry and back-story. The narration continues well past its welcome, and tries to situate the audience inside Matt’s head. Given how much of pic is Matt’s emotional journey, The Descendants doesn’t work well in a visual medium, as we can’t see feelings and thoughts.
The main problem with The Descendants is that it begins where a better movie would have ended, and characters spend a lot of time speechifying to the comatose body of a woman we know only because the other characters describe her to us. For the same reason, her death lacks the impact the story desperately needs. A movie needs to show a workaholic father alienating his wife and daughters, show us the affair, show us how it tears the family apart, rather than telling us about what has already happened. Nothing matters in The Descendants, a fact the film is conscious of and reminds us of too often. While the film does have genuine laughs, they are too few and small to make The Descendants worthwhile.