Arts movie review

Well, I guess this is it

The Descendants has potential, but somehow falls flat

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Shailene Woodley and George Clooney star in The Descendants.
courtesy of fox searchlight pictures. photo by merie wallace


The Descendants

Directed by Alexander Payne

Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, and Amara Miller

Rated R

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Let me start out by saying that the trailer for The Descendants essentially reveals the entire plot, so either don’t watch the trailer or don’t expect much at the theatre. The premise of The Descendants is refreshingly creative: a mother, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), who has fallen into a coma because of an accident leaves behind a husband, Matthew (George Clooney), who is in charge of a large amount of land; a daughter, Alex (Shailene Woodley), who knows about the mother’s affair with another man; and another daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), who imitates every rebellious act of her older sister starting with very obscene language. Despite the original plotline, however, I ended up leaving the theater rather peeved.

The entire film was inconsistent: in wittiness of the screenplay, in levels of complexity of the characters, in the fact that there are no prevalent Polynesian characters in a movie about Hawaii. There are intensely developed characters such as Matthew King, whose portrayal is almost schizophrenic, and then there are characters like Scottie’s school friends who are curiously similar in the monotonous delivery of their lines and the drab content of the lines themselves. Finally, there are instances that are literally laugh-out-loud funny, like Matt’s father-in-law announcing “I’m gonna hit you” and then promptly knocking out Alex’s annoying friend. But these are negated by horribly trite lines: “She’ll never be the way she was,” “Everything has its time,” and the worst “Well, guess that’s it” to end the movie.

I won’t let this just be a rant about the things that both bothered and confused me about the movie though. There are both moments of real, raw emotion and moments that actually made the theatre of about 20 movie reviewers alive with laughter. I was particularly enchanted with the performance of Shailene Woodley as Alex and her ability to cry underwater with such authenticity. In addition, Judy Greer proves yet again how diverse an actress she is with a believable and hilarious performance as the wife of the man with whom Elizabeth had an affair.

Unfortunately, there were simply too many things that were forced. Every scene transition was accompanied by Hawaiian music, the instances of comedic relief were too blatant, and Clooney’s final words to his wife were “goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.” There was not enough originality to live up to its completely original setup. Furthermore, the movie was utterly uncomfortable at parts. I’m not sure that anybody wants to see someone putting makeup on a woman who has been in a coma for several weeks. There are actually close-ups of Elizabeth with her mouth ajar, lips crusty, and neck jaundiced. I didn’t know whether I was supposed to laugh or cry.

The Descendants is a movie with a lot of potential that it failed to meet. A film whose title makes it seem like the next Godfather or Departed is bound to be set up for failure, especially if its story is about a bunch of non-Hawaiians complaining about what to do with Hawaiian land. The movie just seemed like the product of a corroboration of some moderately imaginative writers and the Hawaiian tourism sector.