The Descendants won the top honor tonight at the Golden Globes, and it’s threatening to make a legitimate Oscar splash. Even in a truly horrendous year for mainstream American movies, the potential of this winning Best Picture concerns me as much as The Social Network losing last year did. I’ll preface this review by saying that, if you happened to be emotionally invested in the subject matter of this movie, that’s great, and you’re probably not going to be swayed by anything I say. But this movie has too many missteps for me to have been entertained or moved by it.
In The Descendants, George Clooney plays Matt King, a lawyer whose family has lived in Hawaii for generations. Right away, we learn a) that he has to decide whether to sell off a large parcel of land owned by his family; b) that his wife has just suffered a terrible boating accident that put her into a coma, forcing him to take care of their two daughters; and c) that said wife was cheating on him before she became unresponsive.
Heady stuff, and worthy fodder for a flick. Unfortunately, it wastes the opportunity. It’s a small point, but the first problem comes right away, with the opening voice-over. Seriously, something needs to be done about voice-overs in movies lately. In Time either believed that its audience was idiotic, or it was just too lazy to convey the characters’ situation without Justin Timberlake explicitly laying it out. (Did Children of Men need opening V.O. to tell us that people no longer had kids?) Similarly, Clooney’s V.O. here does not show, but rather tells us: ‘This is my wife. She is hurt. I have kids. I need to change.’ This writing is the worst form of laziness. Inserting exposition into a film while still being entertaining is one of screenwriting’s biggest challenges, something that writers usually spend endless days slaving over, but this is one of the worst cop-outs I’ve seen. (Note that I’m not saying voice-over should never exist; American Beauty, quite possibly the best script of our lifetime, used it, as did The Shawshank Redemption, Million Dollar Baby, and a host of other great movies. But not like this.)
The V.O. is a minor flaw, but The Descendants errs, much more critically, by minimizing the conflict in its story—a death knell. It’s difficult to imagine any scenario in which you want to reduce a film’s conflict. Here, Matt has to take care of 10-year old daughter Scottie and 17-year old Alex. The latter makes for the film’s biggest relationship, but, as she tells us, there’s nothing wrong with her. She does fine in school. She’s not a drug addict or pregnant. Her boyfriend is harmless enough. She cares for her sister. She does think her dad is a bit of a sap, and drinks occasionally, but so what? What does Matt need to do with her? The answer is ‘Not a whole lot,’ and that’s devastating for this movie.
The Descendants acts as though it’s going to imply rebelliousness by providing a boyfriend that Matt doesn’t like, but he’s perfectly fine to her, and the edgiest thing the screenplay can have him do is laugh at an elderly person’s Alzheimer’s. Nothing against that scene, but, really? That’s all we’ve got?
Likewise, Matt’s decision about whether to sell his family’s land to developers is not mined for maximum tension and conflict. At one point, he learns that his wife’s lover would benefit from the proposed sale—a revelation that could have been interesting, could have forced a difficult choice, except that you already assumed he wasn’t going to sell. Therefore, learning this information makes the decision easier, not harder—and that’s boring.
I also think the story would have greatly benefitted from excising the younger daughter entirely. Firstly, it would aid from a convenience standpoint, as she’s constantly having to be watched or dealt with while the adults go off and do their thing. But more importantly, giving Matt just one daughter to reconcile with might have made that relationship sparkle more. (Recall the expression that a single death is a tragedy, while a million is a statistic. Focus on specific, individual relationships in order to move people.) Furthermore, the potential dynamic of Matt-Alex-Alex’s boyfriend would have felt imbalanced (that’s a good thing) and would have highlighted the mother’s absence.
Finally, the film suffers from hitting the same emotional beat over…and over…and over again. Almost all of the best movies take you through a roller-coaster ride of different emotions. The Descendants projects the same melancholy tone throughout. Clooney, in a rather wooden performance, walks around with essentially the same expression for two hours. That dreary music accompanies nearly every scene break. There’s little to no humor. No fewer than three people deliver angry monologues to Matt’s bed-ridden wife. It all blurs together, it all feels the same, and it stops us from truly feeling it. There’s a reason philosophers say that uninterrupted happiness would cease to satisfy humans after a while. In cinematic form, any uninterrupted emotion stops resonating.
None of this is to say the movie is awful. Once we got past the painful voice-over, and I came to grips with the fact that there wasn’t sufficient conflict, I was able to go along with the second half without checking my watch. The scene where Clooney goes to ask his wife’s friends how much they knew about her affair was well done, and his father-in-law was a strong character. Wisely, the film builds the anticipation before allowing Clooney to meet his wife’s lover. And, as mentioned, I know that plenty of people have responded positively to it. But, in my view, it’s a huge waste of potential.