Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Descendants - Theatrical Review


Release Date: November 18, 2011

I hate the holiday season when it comes to new release movies. I don't hate the movies themselves but more the time of year in general. While there are usually a good assortment of entertainment driven films that get released we are also overloaded with a bunch of movies hoping to gain some momentum come awards time next year simply by being released at a point where everyone is taking notice. The Descendants is one of the most blatant attempts at a push for award recognition I have seen in a long time.

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: AMC 30 at the Block in Orange
Time: 4:35 pm December 7, 2011
Projector Type: Digital 2D
Film Rating: R
Film Runtime: 1 hr 50 min
Studio: Fox Searchlight

Loves: George Clooney, dramedies
Likes: Movies about families working through issues
Neutral: Stale delivery of a well worn subject matter
Hates: That movies like this garner all the year end awards simply because it came out at the end of the year.
Hawaii: Not that different from other states apparently

"From the director of Sideways",...that is how they are selling this movie. Who are they advertising this to? I know it isn't the general public since most if not all common moviegoers could care less who made Sideways or even recall what movie that is. This movie is tailor made for critics and award show voters plain and simple. Have you ever heard the term 'Oscar Bait' before? That is what this movie is. It has all the pieces needed to stand out to those select few who decide what the best film of the year is.  I find myself highly conflicted and unusually annoyed by The Descendants. It is a well made, well acted and generally a well meaning movie that in actuality does absolutely nothing wrong other than doing everything needed to win awards. I do have a few issues with the film but nothing damning enough for me to condemn it. Be prepared because for once I have no idea where this review will go.

Matt King (George Clooney) is a husband and father of two daughters, Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller). He is the main trustee over a very large chunk of land in Hawaii where he and his family reside. The land has been entrusted to his family for generations but times have changed and he only has seven years to sell the land or risk losing millions. While he and the King clan try to figure out who they should sell to a tragedy befalls him when his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is injured in a boating accident that leaves her in a coma. Now with extra pressure from his relatives to sell the land, dealing with his wife's condition and learning how to be the primary parent to his daughters, Matt must find a way to appease everyone while also trying to do the right thing.

Matt King tries to have a heart to heart with his eldest daughter.

The story structure of The Descendants will feel overly familiar to anyone that has ever seen any movie concerning a family dealing with a crisis. It is as by the numbers as a movie of this type can get. We are introduced to our main protagonist through a series of voice overs that layer on all the different issues he is going through setting up all the problems that must be dealt and overcome within the next couple hours. This is a formula that works and works well. But in order for it to work FOR ME or more importantly YOU, we have to feel some sort of connection to these characters that we are being asked to invest our time in.

Now this is not a new complaint for me. I have often times gone on and on about how I need to be able to relate to or at least understand what a character is about. This is not a deal breaker for me per say but if the film in question is lacking any real connection for me I usually leave the experience feeling very cold and that goes double for any movie where it is a character driven film. The Descendants is a mixed bag in this case. There were a handful of characters that I liked and found intriguing and a few that I could have cared less about. Problem is that the main character of Matt King is one of the few I could care less about.

Alex attempts to process the news of her mothers condition.

The problem has nothing to do with the acting...not really...OK, maybe a little. George Clooney is treading water here. I love the guy, I really do, but he does nothing here I haven't seen him do a hundred times before. I hate to use the term Hollywood-ized (is that even a real term?) but I haven't seen the man do anything exciting in years. He is solid in the role though and (once again) there is nothing inherently wrong with his performance here. It is adequate but that's it. He delivers a good performance but doesn't seem overly interested in covering any new ground here which is a problem with the film as whole. The story arc for his character also leaves much to be desired since most of the film has him hunting down a man (we don't really know or care about) that was having relations with his wife (who we also don't really know or care about). See the problem there?

As little interest as I had in Clooney's by the numbers performance I found Woodley as his eldest daughter to be a complete 180. I was worried at first though because when we first meet Alex it looks as if she is going to be the rebellious older daughter with an attitude. Thankfully her character shifts towards a more natural portrait of a teenage girl dealing with the loss of a parent who realizes that the parent she is stuck with is in need of some serious help. Whenever she was involved in a scene I always got a little more interested which was only doubled when her boy-friend Sid (Nick Krause) entered the picture who quite literally stole the entire movie from everyone and was the one sole reason I do not have a completely negative outlook on the film. Seriously, if Alex and Sid were the main focus I think I would have enjoyed the film a whole lot more.

Clooney turns and gives his best look for all the Oscar voters out there.

Robert Forster as Clooney's father in law also put in a fine if uninspired turn. He plays a mean son of a bitch pretty damn well and his confrontations with Sid were priceless. All the other actors wrangled up for the film did fine with the only real surprise being Matthew Lillard as a sleazy real estate agent. I honestly thought the guy was dead but alas he has grown into a slightly competent actor in his older years. I only wished that they would have found some way to bring Freddie Prinze Jr. into the movie as well so we could reunite the titans of cinematic trash once again. But yeah, all the performances were fine but that's it, no one really stood out unfortunately.

With so many critics throwing out accolades for the film left and right I thought I was in store for something unique or at the very least something that took a tried and true family drama formula and injected it with a dose of originality. I had this same exact reaction to Clooney's last Oscar Bait movie Up in the Air, both films share a lot of commonalities for me. They are both hailed critically, feature fine actors doing fine work portraying characters I could care less about in a situation that is just barely above the yawn inducing level. I wish I could sum it up for you. That sense of nothing I had when I left that movie theater was shocking to me. I wasn't uplifted, enlightened, excited or even sad (with the last emotion there being the one the film was going for I think). I was extremely complacent about the whole ordeal. Just for shits and giggles though let's try and give a run down on why I feel this way.

Sid and Alex look just as annoyed as I felt.

When the film opens we see a woman on a jet ski in Hawaii. The next image is of Clooney held up in a Hospital with his comatose wife (the woman on the jet ski) as he proceeds to narrate to us. Then he takes his youngest daughter over to a neighboring island to pick up Alex, his eldest daughter so that she can be with the family. Then we find out that his wife will never wake up and that per her wishes the doctors are going to pull the plug. Clooney must then find a way to break the news to everyone they know, including his wife's parents, and come to grips with his eminent loss. Amidst all this he is dealing with a large financial deal that will make him and his family millions and the recent revelation of his wife's indiscretions. The next hour and half of the film is Clooney running around telling people that his wife is gonna die while trying to find the mystery man his wife was sleeping with.

That's it, that is the entire movie. Nothing is ever really resolved by the end, certain decisions are made and I suppose you could make the argument that Clooney's character "starts" to learn how to be a real father to his daughters but that is it. It is just one giant countdown until his wife dies as we watch him, his daughters and Sid interact with different people they come across. I didn't care about his wife, we never got to know her. We learn about her from what other people say but even then I never got a clear cut picture as to who she was. I felt more attached to the mother in last summers Super 8 than I ever did with this woman and she wasn't even half as relevant to the overall story as this woman is supposed to be. So all the hurt, pain, reflection and discovery Clooney and his daughters go through meant absolutely nothing to me. As a matter of fact, from what I was able to discern about his wife she seemed kind of selfish and reckless which made me even more unsympathetic.

Matt King and his girls contemplate life and death.

I know I am sounding very venomous towards this film which isn't really fair in some respects. I truly believe that there are people out there (not critics mind you) that will find a lot of redeeming values in watching The Descendants. As I mentioned before (and numerous other times) this is a technically sound film overall. The use of Hawaii as the backdrop was a welcome change of scenery from the usual suburban landscape that dominates these types of films. There is some real honest to goodness soul searching going on in there as well just so long as you get on board with the characters and their dilemmas.

If ever there were a movie that did everything right yet also did everything wrong in the process, I think it would be The Descendants. My skewed point of view may have confused you as will my overly obtuse recommendation I bet and for that I apologize. I cannot in good conscience recommend that you go see this movie. If you are a George Clooney fan then you MIGHT get some semblance of enjoyment out of it but otherwise the entire film is just one big chore to sit through. I recommend that come awards season when it gets a ton of nominations (that is what this movie was made for after all) that you check it out for yourself and make your own conclusions on it and see if you think it deserves all the attention it is getting. Just because a movie is independently produced, features a slew of characters trying to resolve their issues and features one movie star in what is essentially a thankless role doesn't automatically make it great and The Descendants is proof positive of that fact. The movie is harmless when all is said and done but I didn't buy any of what it was selling and I suggest you do the same. If you are curious then...




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