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The Descendants (DVD)
Member Name: SWSt
The Descendants (DVD)
Advantages: Three fine central performances; a good blend of tragedy, drama and comedy
Disadvantages: Steers clear of the really controversial (but more interesting) plotlines
But wait, come back... although it might be a little earnest and a little worthy at times, The Descendants is still a good film. Not a great film admittedly and certainly not as good as everyone is trying to make out, but still a perfectly good film.
Starring everyone's favourite liberal heartthrob George Clooney, The Descendants examines the life of Matt King, a man whose life is thrown into turmoil when his wife is involved in a serious boating accident which leaves her in a deep coma in hospital. As Matt starts to face some difficult decisions over his wife's future, he also starts to realise that despite being married to her, he knew very little about her. He also needs to face up to the reality of two rebellious teenage daughters and a major issue concerning the sale of a valuable parcel of land that belonged to his ancestors and which he, together with a number of his cousins, holds in trust .
Despite much critical buzz, The Descendants doesn't actually do much new. The specifics and location of the film might have changed, but the basic idea (facing up to the death of a loved one and that wider impact that has) is not so much different from other "illness" films, stretching all the way back to Debra Winger weepy Terms of Endearment. It's about someone starting to re-discover what is really important and confronting a few difficult truths about themselves and the people they love. Come the end of the film, we know that everyone is going to come out of it all this sadder, but stronger.
So, whilst it's not terribly original, The Descendants remains watchable. It finds a good balance between tragedy, drama and comedy. There are moments that will make you laugh (albeit often in a slightly uncomfortable way), ones which will make you feel sad and plenty which will satisfy the basic human need to poke unwelcome noses into the affairs of others. It's one of those films which it's difficult to ascribe to a specific genre and which probably needs a whole new term (Tragi-dramcom?) creating.
Whatever genre you squeeze it into, all the elements work very well together creating a film which, on the whole is well-balanced. Although it suffers from some slightly pedestrian pacing and obvious sub-plots it nevertheless manages to keep the viewer interested.
This is underpinned by some excellent acting from George Clooney. The role (and Clooney's involvement) is a blatant attempt at Oscar-grabbing, but it's also the sort of thing which Clooney does well. As he grows older, Clooney is starting to rely less on his film star looks and more on his undoubted acting ability. These are skills he uses to great effect in The Descendants, his every agonising decision and new revelation tearing him apart inside. It is a strong portrayal of the grieving process, as Clooney's face registers every emotion from anger to despair; desperation to acceptance. Talk of Oscars is perhaps a little over-ambitious (although it's exactly the sort of role The Academy goes for, so don't be surprised if he picks up a Golden Baldie later this month), but it's a fine performance nevertheless.
This is underpinned by two particularly strong supporting roles. Shailene Woodley is excellent as Clooney's rebellious teenage daughter, Alex. Initially, Alex is a walking cliché, a rebel without a cause and an emotional mess thanks to a secret she is keeping from her father. Yet as the film progresses, she develops as a character, showing a deeper, more mature side as she learns that she needs her father, just as he needs her. If this transition is at times a little fast and convenient, this is the fault of the script, not of Woodley. Veering between emotional rock and emotional wreck, this is another moving and convincing portrayal of impact sudden tragedy can bring.
Complementing Woodley's performance is an equally strong turn from Nick Krause as Alex's slacker boyfriend, Sid. At first, Sid appears a very lazily written character, simply there for the odd bit of comic value. Initial judgements of Sid are not positive: he comes across as an insensitive, selfish and stupid idiot. As with Alex, though, as the film progresses, he matures, showing a deeper side which takes him from being a despicable character to a likeable one; one who provides much needed emotional support and stability for Alex. It's credit to Krause that this transition is achieved despite very limited screen time (certainly when compared to Clooney and Woodley) and in convincing fashion.
Still, despite there being a lot to like, it's a long way from the perfect film. For a start, it's just too damn predictable. You know the path that Matt's character arc is going to take right from the start of the film and whilst this predictability doesn't hurt the film, neither does it set it apart from other. The ultimate resolution of the sub-plot involving the land deal will come as no surprise to anyone, unless you have never seen a Hollywood film before... and even then you won't find it too taxing to join up the dots and come up with the right answer.
It also ignores some potentially very interesting (and controversial) plotlines. Matt simply accepts that his wife's life support machines will be turned off simply because she has signed an advanced directive stating that she does not wish to receive life-sustaining treatment if her quality of life is zero. Surely this is an area worthy of consideration (and would have made for a far more interesting plot)? Yet, Matt and all his relatives simply do the cinematic equivalent of shrugging their shoulders and saying "OK" which struck me as a little odd. Being purely cynical, you could argue that this would have been a little too controversial for Hollywood tastes and might have upset the delicate flowers at The Academy, so it is simply glossed over.
Probably because it has one eye on the Oscars, The Descendants can be a little worthy and earnest at times and it's a more likeable film when it allows itself the odd moment of underplayed comedy to lighten the tone. It can also feel a rather slow-paced, as though the whole thing is running through treacle. Whilst this certainly adds to the atmosphere and gives characters time to develop, there were times when it was a little too pedestrian.
The soundtrack is also going to divide people, with almost every scene accompanied by Hawaiian music to complement the Hawaiian setting. How much this grates on you will depend on your tolerance for the guitar and yodelling style of music apparently favoured by everyone on the islands (at least if this film is to be believed). Initially, I found it quite soothing; after almost two hours, the seemingly endless variations on a theme were starting to become rather annoying.
So, despite being little more than a blatant Oscar grab, The Descendants is not actually a bad film. The thing is, it's not a great film either. It's reluctance to deal with anything new or to tackle the really controversial aspects of the plot represent something of a missed opportunity. Despite three fine central performances and much critical acclaim, I honestly don't think that The Descendants will leave much of a lasting impression on cinema history.
Director: Alexander Payne
Running time: approx. 115 minutes
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012
Summary: A good film, but sometimes a little too earnest