Couch Baron

1/31: The Descendants

In 31 Films, 31 Days on December 1, 2011 at 4:49 pm

“I hate this movie already.” – Sarah D. Bunting, the 00:00:23 mark

With good reason. Look, I like George Clooney. Don’t you? It seems almost un-American not to like him; when you think of American movie stars, he inevitably comes to mind. A place with which his name evokes a less ready association, however, is Hawaii; despite his (failed) effort at the beginning of the film to say the name like a native, he never remotely comes off like someone who’s lived his life there, much less someone who has and feels a deep, generations-spanning tie to the place. Which wouldn’t be such a problem if part of his character arc and one of the climactic scenes in the film weren’t so dependent on him convincing us he’s just that.

But I suppose I’m getting ahead of myself, given how much else there is wrong with the film. At the beginning, we see a beatific shot of a woman sitting on a boat in lovely blue waters; before you know it, we’ve learned she’s suffered an accident and is in a coma. (If I never wanted to pursue water sports before, I never NEVER do now.) Her coma-induced silence gives Clooney’s character, Matt, the reference point needed to inform us via voiceover that “In a way, we hadn’t really talked in months,” at which point I had to take a moment to recover from the image of the screenwriter trying to type that line with two Christmas-size hams for hands. The insipid relentlessness of the VO in the early going is what prompted the header quote; it also caused Sarah and me to rip through a bottle of wine in half an hour, which didn’t help, and we were only tinged with regret that we hadn’t thought to stock up more fully. Equally stifling is the discussion of the familial land trust of which Matt is the executor; after his younger daughter goes through an unconvincing period of acting up, prompting an in-person apology to one of her classmates, the wronged child’s mother vomits up a heap of exposition into our unsuspecting laps like so much rancid poi; after she’d babbled for nearly a minute about the details of the upcoming vote that would determine the fate of some admittedly-beautiful land, I wondered why she didn’t just get the proposed contract out and read it verbatim, and when there came further explanation via VO on top of that, the amount of exposition made it occur to me that we were watching the Hawaiian family drama version of The Phantom Menace.

These grievances may seem petty, but part of the joy of moviegoing for me is figuring out the story from non-verbal cues, and aggressive exposition robs me of that and of many potentially interesting chances to see the actors, you know, act. Regardless, those complaints pale in comparison to the emotional inconsistencies and unbelievable instances of tone-deaf actions and dialogue. My friends at Extra Hot Great brought this up in a recent edition of their podcast, but there is a truly unbelievable moment in which the older daughter’s boyfriend, who’s generally fairly likable in a Jeff-Spicoli-light way, openly and loudly mocks how slow and stupid his girlfriend’s elderly grandmother is. To do this in front of your SO’s family is beyond bizarre, but given that the grandmother is obviously suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s, it’s truly ridiculous. As if to reciprocate, when said boyfriend (Sid is his name) confesses to Matt that his dad was killed in a drunk-driving accident, Matt doesn’t offer even insincere condolences. Who hears that a teenage boy lost his dad and doesn’t say, and I’m just spitballing here, “I’m sorry”? Another example of emotional dissonance occurs when Matt, having learned that his wife was cheating on him, pours ranting invective all over her when they’re alone, but soon after, when his daughter attempts to do a somewhat light version of same, he’s actually offended on his wife’s behalf, and the fact that those two events occur in continuous time underscores how all over the map the film plays, as does the score, with jaunty ukulele music piping up at the oddest, most grim times. If the writing and/or Clooney’s performance were better, I might have felt sympathy when Matt, in frustration, asked why it is that the women in his life all want to destroy themselves; but, and maybe I’ve watched too much Archer, my mental response was “You just gonna softball it in like that?” I do feel bad for Clooney, if not for Matt; when he takes off at a dramatic run (there’s always a dramatic run in this kind of story) for his friends’ house, it seems like he’s managing a full diaper, and while that’s probably due to the flip-flops on his feet more than anything else, it’s still comical, and not in an intended or good way. Just drive next time, guy.

Not that there isn’t stuff I enjoyed. In particular, Shailene Woodley, whom I’d previously only known as Kaitlin from The O.C. (pre-Willa Holland, that is), delivers a breakout performance; it’s caustic, yet sensitive, and despite a big presence she never overplays her hand, whether she’s being a bratty teenager, a loyal daughter, a surrogate mother, or a girl dealing with a slow, tragic loss; as I remarked to Sarah, I’d have been happy to watch a whole film about her. The other enjoyable players come in smaller roles; Beau Bridges, with support from his eyebrows, is familiar and fun, Rob Huebel brings his usual irresistible comedy, and Judy Greer continues to shine as Matt’s wife’s lover’s wife; in her last scene (badly written and incomprehensibly edited as it may be), she blends her wonderful humor with kindness, sadness, and dignity. Even Matthew Lillard as said lover is fine, acting-wise, but his face looks like he’s an early-onset victim of the ark demons in Raiders. Fewer chemical peels, more shade, dood. And speaking of which, a conversation about the actors wouldn’t be complete without me telling you that Michael Ontkean, from his appearance and dearth of lines, has apparently had so much work done that it hurts him to speak, and that Robert Forster’s performance, as usual, is EXECRABLE.

In the end, Matt defies his family and decides to hold on to the land that their ancestors (they are The Descendants, remember) handed down to them, or something; there were so many speeches about the tangled politics of Hawaiian real estate that I kind of gave up. I do know that, regardless of whatever life lessons the film may think Matt learned by spending time chasing down Matthew Lillard and taking long walks on the beach (we see these; this movie is not tight) while his wife slowly expired, Matt giving an emotional speech to his rich, white family about how they’re all Hawaiian comes off as a preposterous climax to the film, and it’s inspired by an equally silly and manipulative montage of him staring, as though for inspiration, at photos of his dead relatives. And in the end, his cheating wife dies, the family scatters her ashes, and…Matt’s a better person and father because of it? You get the sense that the next line following the film’s ending might be “So who’s for ice cream?” Rather than comment further on that, however, I’ll just tell you that at one point Sarah’s cat Little Joe, famous over on Tomato Nation, plonked his paws down on my keyboard; when I saw what he’d written, I looked at it in wonder. Sarah did too, as apparently none of her felines had ever written anything intelligible before; it was like those typing monkeys finally got their acts together. Joe’s editorial commentary?

“Ewwwwww.” – Little Joe

We’re not going to be doing the same film every day, but we did for the kickoff; you can read Sarah’s take on The Descendants over on Tomato Nation here!

  1. I just saw this tonight. To be fair, when Matt gives that speech to his rich, white family, he flat-out says that they’re rich and white – “we’re haole [haole means white] as shit, we send our kids to private school,” etc.

    I disagree slightly about Sid – I didn’t find him likeable at all. I was like, “You paid for a seat on a flight for this dipshit? Send this fucker home.” And he 100% had that black eye coming when he laughed at a woman with obvious dementia. She does not “know she’s being funny,” asshole.

    Overall, while I love Clooney, this gets a thumbs-down – I found it schmaltzy and indulgent, with some bits of absolutely ridiculous dialogue.

    • I guess I wouldn’t be so mad at this one if it weren’t in contention for all these awards. I honestly don’t get it.