"Elizabeth is dying, wait, Fuck You! And she's dying."
I wanted to love this film, I really did. I thought for most of its running time that I did, but the longer it went on, the harder it was for me to love it. Alexander Payne is an insanely talented writer and director, but he has no sense of pacing, and it's painfully obvious in all of his films with the possible exception of Election. His films just have no forward momentum and it feels like just when his films finally get going, they end. Now, I love About Schmidt, but it doesn't really pick up steam until Warren's speech at the wedding, and it ends roughly ten minutes later. Same thing with Sideways, that film really comes to life in the scene where Miles goes to get Jack's wallet back, and that's about 90 minutes into the movie. Signs of life finally show up near the end, and then he wraps things up. It's a choice, otherwise it wouldn't be such a noticeable pattern.
The Descendants tells the story of Matt King (George Clooney), a man dealing simultaneously with the sale of a large piece of land in Hawaii that his family owns as well as the imminent death of his wife who is in a come following a boating accident. Matt is a man who has spent most of his married life as the second parent to his two daughters 10 year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17 year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley), and now he is thrust into a situation where he is doing all the heavy lifting in the family. Through a conversation with Alex, Matt finds out that his wife was carrying on an affair, and this begins to consume Matt. He is also dealing with having to break the news of his wife's looming death. If you feel overwhelmed just reading all this, imagine what it's like witnessing it. This is a man who seems to have had it all figured out his entire life, and now he's just getting thrown one curveball after another.
He is also getting to know his daughters for the first time. He hasn't spent a lot of time raising them, and the film above and beyond anything else is about a man who's been a father for a long time figuring out how to be a dad. This part of the story really connected for me, and maybe there's other angles that will connect with other people, but for me, this is what the movie is about. Matt is dealing with protecting his youngest daughter from the harsh reality of her mother's situation, and he's also dealing with his eldest daughter's rebellious streak and her ever-present friend Sid (Nick Krause). After tracking down the man his wife was having the affair with, Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), he also finds himself facing a man who is married and has children, and he becomes conflicted about confronting him.
The film has a ton of balls up in the air and that, for me, was its biggest problem. I suppose it all flows naturally enough, but the way that revelation on top of revelation just piles up and then effectively resolves itself in the last ten minutes of the film kind of bothered me. As natural and easy-going as the flow is, it felt like watching the first season of Lost all over again; Part of me was excited by each new revelation and twist to the story, but the other part of me was just left wondering, when are we going to start tying up some of these loose ends?
Clooney has had a long and distinguished career, but he's kind of been playing a variation on the same character for years. It's a curse of being a movie star, I suppose, but there is part of me that wants to see him really stretch. The Coen Brothers have offered him that chance at least twice (O Brother & Burn After Reading) and I loved him in the horrendously under-seen Welcome to Collinwood, but there is a part of me that wants to be floored by him in a role like this, and I just know that I won't because it's just that same type of character again. All of this is not to say that he isn't good in the film, he's outstanding, but he was just as good in Michael Clayton & Up in the Air.
Shailene Woodley, on the other hand, is revelatory. She is as good a discovery as Haillee Stenifeld in last year's True Grit. She has a long career ahead of her, if she wants it, and I look forward to what the future holds for her. She has an honesty in her delivery and a burning intensity in her eyes, and I thoroughly enjoyed her.
The film was full of memorable bit parts, as all of Payne's films are, but my favorite has to be Nick Krause as Sid. At first, I thought he was going to be a grating addition to the cast, but once his scene with Clooney where they talk about Sid's family lands, his motivation and character come into focus, and he is great. The scene where Robert Forster punches him was far and away my favorite, and I began looking forward to him being in scenes after that.
The cinematography is wonderful, as to be expected from a film shot in Hawaii. Every landscape is gorgeous and the camera lingers, sometimes too long, on some of the breathtaking vistas. I'm glad that the film eschewed some of the moments that seemed like it was on a collision course with, i.e. there was no long monologue by Matt to his cousins explaining his decision about the land. There were several moments where I braced myself for some hardcore monologuing, and they never came up, which is a welcome omission from a film such as this.
There is a lot to admire about The Descendants, it's a very good film, but I feel that it's thoroughly forgettable. It doesn't bring anything new to the table, and while that's not a requirement for any film, when a film has the pedigree that this one does, you expect it to break some new ground somewhere, or have that moment where you realize that it's just gone from a good film to a great film, and this film just doesn't cut it. I would recommend it to anyone who's a fan of any of the talent involved, but don't be swayed by the hype. The studio wants you to believe it's the best film you'll see this year, and it falls sadly shy of that lofty goal.