Alexander Payne has nonetheless carved a nice little niche out for himself in Hollywood. With movies like Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, he has specialized in small, personal and even intimate dramatic stories focused on character and relationships above all else. Not a bad thing, right? Especially when you think about all the explosion and nudity driven movies out there. What then about Payne's latest film, 2011's The Descendants?
A highly successful lawyer living in Hawaii, Matt King (George Clooney)
is facing a difficult real estate decision that could bring his family
millions of dollars as they sell off 25,000 acres of oceanfront land
that's been in the family for over 100 years. That's just the start
though. For most of a month, Matt has been trying to hold his family
together after a boating accident put his wife into a coma. Now on life
support, a decision on what to do with her living will looms. Matt is on
the brink though, dealing with his daughters, troubled teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and younger Scottie (Amara Miller), while trying to juggle it all. A family frayed before the accident, more tension awaits.
While I liked this movie, I won't say I loved it, not by a long
shot. What jumped out at me was that this was a prime example of the
Best Picture nominations being watered down at the Academy Awards.
Instead of five worthy films, 10 now get nominations. Was 'Descendants'
really worth a nomination for one of the best films of 2011? It's good,
but certainly not great. Yes, the drama feels real, the relationships
among family and friends authentic without resorting to theatrics, the
Hawaiian setting an interesting choice as a backdrop, but what else? I
felt like I've seen this movie before and several times before. I came
away disappointed, but I can still recommend it. I think. I might change
my mind in a paragraph or so.
The same issue I had with the movie itself as an Oscar nominee is
what I have with Clooney earning a Best Actor nomination. Clooney takes a
bad rap at times for basically playing himself in all his movies, and
to a point, I agree. This is a solid, worthwhile acting job, no doubt
about that, but it feels like it's been done before. He's believable,
likable, even sympathetic, but as an actor -- drama or comedy -- I've
seen him do so much better. A real bright spot -- and fellow Oscar
nominee -- is Woodley as his daughter, Alexandra, shipped away to an
island boarding school of sports. She has news that could cripple her
father, the family situation they're in bringing father and daughter
closer than they ever were before. Miller too as Scottie (appropriately
struggling with her mom's health situation) is a positive.
The rest of the cast is more hit or miss, part of that problem being chalked up to the script. Mary Birdsong and Rob Huebel are shrewish, shrill and mysterious as family friends who know Matt because they were friends with his wife first. Robert Forster
is Matt's father-in-law, holding a grudge against Matt for not treating
his daughter like she deserved. Like so many other friends and family
though, he doesn't know everything, looking at his daughter in
rose-tinted glasses. Nick Krause
tries too hard to be a similarly troubled teen as Sid, Alexandra's
friend, clueless, revealing, and very smart all at the same time. Beau Bridges has a small part as Hugh, Matt's cousin, while Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer
play a married couple who steps into the King's family situation.
Either trying too hard or not enough to make the characters unique
and/or interesting, Forster and Greer end up standing out from the rest.
I don't know what to say. I was just disappointed in the end. At
just under two hours, it feels much longer. The story bounces around far
too much for my liking, focusing on scenes that could have been in the
background while glossing over scenes that felt more important to me.
That could be me though....there's a reason I'm writing movie reviews
and not movie scripts. It's a uniformly good movie, but it isn't the
great or even semi-great movie that it was made out to be. It feels like
a rehash of other movies, never adding anything new to the equation.
And that heavily Hawaiian-themed soundtrack gets old quickly. Quirky
much? Real quick quirky too. Sorry to say I can't give this one a better
The Descendants <----trailer (2011): **/****