The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Descendants

With a relatively small filmography to his name, director 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 rating.

The Descendants <----trailer (2011): **/****

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