Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television.
What I found interesting initially about The Descendants is the setting. The film is set in Hawaii, and it immediately affects how one views the proceedings. That is until George Clooney’s voiceover comes in and tells us it shouldn’t. He says something I never consciously thought of—Hawaii is just a place like any other. Sure, it’s paradise, but people still live and work and die. Things are just as fatal, just as dangerous, just as sad. This is relevant, because as the film starts, we find ourselves in a hospital.
Matt King (Clooney) is a lawyer as well as the sole trustee of a massive land trust inherited from generations back in a direct line from King Kamehameha. The trust runs out in seven years, though, and so the family is considering the sale of their final parcel of land—25,000 acres of pristine beachfront on Kauai. Just as the sale is preparing to go through, King’s wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie, in a role that required her to essentially lie in bed with her mouth open) is in a serious speedboat accident and rendered comatose. We learn early on that this is a permanent situation; she will never recover. Because of her living will, the family pulls the plug and begins saying goodbye.
That might be enough for a film, but not enough for a really engaging one, so naturally there are a number of complications. The Kings have two daughters—Alex (Shailene Wooley), who is foul-mouthed and who jumps from boarding school to boarding school because of her behavior; and Scottie (Amara Miller), who has started acting out in school and bullying other kids. Things are further complicated when it is revealed that Elizabeth King was having an affair. Matt finds out when Alex tells him, and suddenly the quest to find this man and achieve closure becomes the singular drive in Matt King’s life. All of this is further complicated by the fact that Matt King’s kids are out of control, and he has always been so busy with his career that he hasn’t been much of a parent.
And so, the bulk of the film is coming to terms with the loss of Elizabeth and the restructuring of the King family. It also involves tracking down Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), the man with whom Elizabeth was having an affair. And just to make things nice and spicy, it turns out that Brian is the son-in-law of the man at the top of the list for buyers and will stand to make a fortune on commission from the sale of the land.
The best thing about The Descendants is how plainly human it is. These are people in pain and dealing with their situation as best they can, and their mechanisms for coping are completely human as well. There are moments of humor, but also moments of pain. The way the children act out is almost flawless in how much sense it makes and how accurately it is portrayed. Elizabeth’s father (Robert Forster) is precisely how we think of a father-in-law, always defending his daughter and antagonizing his son-in-law, and again, this is just about perfect. It’s a truly masterful script in this respect; not a line seems out of place.
One of Alex’s points of rebellion is her insistence on the presence of Sid (Nick Krause), a stereotypically Hawaiian surfer dude with few manners and no social graces who slowly becomes one of the more interesting and engaging characters in the film. It’s also without a doubt the best role and the best work of Matthew Lillard’s career for the short period of time he’s on screen. Who knew the guy had it in him?
I very much enjoy the relationships here, even if they are somewhat alien to me. I’m deeply involved in the lives of my kids, so being so detached from them doesn’t sit right with me, although I understand it. It’s a real joy to see these relationships start to form and grow as the film progresses, particularly between Matt and Alex, who end up much closer by the close.
If I need to pick out a negative here, it’s the language. There’s a vast amount of language, and the bulk of it comes from Alex. That’s not the sort of thing that bothers me in general—I’m far more likely to let my own kids watch something with language than with sex or violence. It’s just surprising to having so much of it coming from someone of this age. And, in truth, this complaint is more of a warning for more sensitive viewers. If language bothers you, it’ll bother you more here, coming out of a young person’s mouth.
Anyway, this is a smart, well-made film. Despite the setting, it’s a film that concentrates on the story and the people, since this is where the interest should be. It could have ended up as a travelogue for Hawaii, but it never gets there despite the gorgeous scenery in places and the Hawaiian music throughout. In other words, I liked this and liked it more than I expected.
Why to watch The Descendants: It’s the most human film I’ve seen from 2011 so far.
Why not to watch: Foul language from young mouths, if that sort of thing offends you.
I was really surprised with this film when I saw it. I liked it quite a bit.ReplyDelete
I'll be honest here, though... I find it interesting your biggest compliment to the film is how human and realistic it is, yet your main complaint is a teenager cussing a lot. I'd say that's pretty dang realistic and human, myself, particularly these days. Even to the degree in the film.
True. Perhaps I'm not quite that jaded yet. My kids are younger than Alex, and while my older daughter almost certainly does swear, she NEVER does so around me. So seeing Alex unleash a torrent of profanity at and near her father was initially a surprise.Delete
I guess working in high school, I'd seen (and heard) quite a bit. Teens these days don't hold back, even from their parents. I let students use my classroom phone to call parents for important reasons and they'd end up in a cussing match with said parent before the call was over. One time I had a kid's mom show up at the school. She walked her son to the classroom. He was just jokingly cussing at her, even. He goes into the classroom, and she gives him the finger behind his back (and the whole class laughed). And this was normal behavior for them. That's the kind of society we live in now. So I guess I was just used to it.Delete
One of the things that I love most about Payne's work is his use of real/found locations. Setting this film in Hawaii but not idealizing the location is wonderful. I love seeing the leaves in the pool, the debris in the streets, the unkempt yards. It makes it... real. It helps contribute to that sense of humanity you talked about so eloquently.ReplyDelete
The relationships are central here. I also enjoyed watching the father and daughter become closer, and you are spot on about Sid. It was so gratifying, watching him turn from a stereotype into a character. His speech in the hotel room at night made me cry.
Sid ends up being one of my favorite characters here, and that's really an accomplishment. I hated Sid initially, as I am supposed to do. Over time, as you say, he becomes human instead of generic, and that's what makes him work as a character. I went from "I hope he's not in this much" to "I'm glad he's still here" by the end.Delete
And yes--Payne pays attention to detail, which makes all of this believable.
Final note @Nick--when I started this blog, I had the idea of reasons to see/not see films. Sometimes, my reasons for one or the other is a stretch. This time, it's more of a "this may bother you" reason than a "boy, this bothered me" reason.
I liked this movie and recommended it, but it didn't come up to the level of "Best Picture Nominee" for me. I feel it's the kind of film that will be mostly forgotten 10 years from now, compared to some of the other nominees.ReplyDelete
I was most impressed with Wooley's performance in the film. I had never seen her before and I felt she knocked it out of the park. She starts out as unsympathetic, but then you realize she has actually been trying to protect her father, even though her relationship with him is not the best at the time the movie opens.
Yeah, I buy that. I can see this one being sort of an "oh, yeah...I remember that" in a few years.Delete
Good point about Wooley. Alex goes through the same sort of growth that Sid does, but faster and more.
I can't help but think of this: If You Liked The Descendants, You Are A Terrible Person http://thelastpsychiatrist.com/2011/12/if_you_liked_the_descendants_y.htmlReplyDelete
Funny, if a big disingenuous. The author titles the piece "If You Liked The Descendants, You Are a Terrible Person" and goes on to say that he/she (don't know which) is not attacking fans of the film but only those who identified with it. So is the article disingenuous or merely the title?Delete
Anyway, I'm not sure I buy the argument.
I think he/she is trying to have it both ways: Be snarky without alienating anyone. Besides that, I thought it was a pretty insightful take on the movie (and today's Hollywood) myself.Delete
Good review SJ. Definitely didn't have me crying by the end of it like I was expecting, but I still have to give it to Payne and the cast, they all give detailed and understated characters that all seem to have a lot more to them than just being a bunch of caricatures. I never really love Clooney in movies, but he was very good here in playing it subtle but still charming, in his own, Clooney-esque way.ReplyDelete