The Descendants (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Descendants (2011)

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It's a nostalgia-tinged season for movies all right. While there's some fond look backs like a Marilyn Monroe biopic and a semi-homage to silent film, today we've got a rarer treat: a film that's apparently a thematic duplicate to the other films its director has made. Why make something new and exciting when one formula layered with off-kilter quirk seems to work just as well?

That's how you get something like The Descendents, a light comedy that plays like a greatest hits reel from director Alexander Payne's filmography. None of the verve or anger of Election or About Schmidt here, just some light drama and light comedy mixed together to give us a film that's like milk: good when you want it, but forgettable immediately thereafter.

That's not much of anyone's fault I think, just the circumstances of a lackadaisical film that exists simply for the pleasure of existing. The film is at best a nice way to spend the afternoon, and, at worst, another example of a film sold as independent cinema simply because it deals with actual human emotions on a relative scale.


But, first, a very important message from the film's plot.

Matt King (George Clooney) is the descendant of a land baron and one of the last members of the Hawaiian royalty. This is all well in good until a pair of misfortunes land in his lap: his estranged wife is put into a coma after a boating accident and his family finds his land trust can no longer retain the unspoiled acreage that they've watched over for generations.

With his wife incapacitated, he's also stuck with his precocious daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller). He's never really felt comfortable in his role as a father, and this is magnified as we learn about Alexandra's substance abuse issues and Scottie's social hostility. Since is the comedy, you won't be surprised to learn that most of these issues have vanished by the hour mark.

Well, looks like some more age gap humor. Here we go.

In fact, thanks to the film's storyline, most of the conflict seems to melt away fairly early on, as we're treated to Clooney earning the respect of his offspring and then hunting down the man with whom his wife had been having an affair (Matthew Lillard-- yes, Matthew Lillard). In the meantime, he's also trying to figure out what to do with the parcel of land-- either to develop it, or to leave it the beautiful peaceful sanctuary it is.

It won't much shock anyone that Matt reconnects with the land, nor that George Clooney once again gets the adjective of 'charming' attached to his performance. The rest of the cast is fine too.

A lot of it is just that-- fine. I appreciate the messiness The Descendants dabbles in, but there wasn't enough of it to convince me that the movie has any real verve to stick with its convictions. Most of its humor comes from age gaps-- oh, kids these days are stupid and callow! Oh, old people these days are old and cranky!-- and the film tries to wring pathos from using this humor and gradually undercutting some very obvious expectations. It's safe, gentle humor, and I won't say it doesn't work, but it's not very interesting.

She's pretty good in this, so there's that.

The last shot of the film is quite good, as it links the family's unity with the memory of their mother with one subtle object, but the rest of the film's resonance is nonexistent. Clooney's character is too aloof to be much of an anchor, and his problems seem to get resolved with little action needed. You can call it kismet, but dynamic it sadly is not.

When the film manages to not feel like exactly what it is, it's alright. But I did try to have a conversation with my fiancee about it three hours after watching it, and she couldn't remember what movie I was talking about. I can't blame her.

Unless she has amnesia or something. I should look into that.

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Posted by Danny

Comments (3) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Clooney and everybody else included is great but it’s really Payne who shines as the writer bringing out some funny humor but not without forgetting about the real rich moments of human drama. Good review Danny, as usual. A good film but not as great as I was expecting.

  2. Very spiritually motivated. I really love the whole concept of the story. Good for family bonding and family interactions. Thanks for sharing this wonderful vid.

  3. Pretty much exactly how I felt about the film: just fine. Good, not great. Interesting, but not very.

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