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"The Descendants": The most over-hyped film of 2011

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Reel Mama: "The Descendants": The most over-hyped film of 2011

Saturday, February 25, 2012

"The Descendants": The most over-hyped film of 2011

I remember years ago seeing a satirical film that made me laugh out loud with its razor sharp wit, in no small part due to the perfect comic timing of its young star, then a newcomer on the Hollywood scene.  The film was Election.  The star was Reese Witherspoon, and the director was Alexander Payne, also then a relative “new kid” on the block on the directing scene.  Since then Payne’s career has included some real standout films as a director, writer, and producer.  Besides Election and his latest film The Descendants, Payne’s best-known films are About Schmidt and SidewaysSideways could describe the angle from which he views the human heart.  His characters very often aren’t likable.  A lot of times they are losers.  In Sideways the characters are likable losers, and the journey they are on is interesting.  In The Descendants, the characters are so unlikeable, and their feeble attempt at “soul searching” so uninteresting, that I found it very difficult to care about their predicament.

George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, and Amara Miller
star in The Descendants

It is thus with shock and awe that I’m attempting to process the accolades and awards that have been lavished on this production.  I’m offering, as far as I can tell, one of the only negative reviews of The DescendantsI checked on, a reliable source for reviews across the spectrum, and the only two negative reviews offered aren’t even in English.  One is in Portuguese and the other is in Greek (yes, it’s quite literally Greek to me)--so how do we know they are negative?  
The film is a slice of dysfunctional family life in paradise--in this case, Hawaii, where the family has resided for generations.  Tragedy strikes when Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie) is severely injured in a boating accident that leaves her comatose and with little chance of survival. Her husband Matt King (Clooney) must now take responsibility for his two daughters, but he’s always felt like “the back-up parent, the understudy,” and his disconnection from his daughters is apparent.  The girls are hurling steadily towards Amy Winehouse territory.  Seventeen-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) is a foul-mouthed party girl who has issues with drinking and drugs, and ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), who curses like a tiny sailor, is a spoiled brat who cyberbullies, loves flipping the bird, and watches porn with her friends.  Such is the state of the American family. 
It is soon revealed that Elizabeth cheated on Matt, and thus begins his mission to find and confront his wife’s lover Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard).  Daughter Alexandra conspires to help him succeed on this noble quest, thus enabling father and daughter to form an alliance of sorts, a somewhat dubious way for father and daughter to bond and come to grips with their impending loss of Elizabeth as wife and mother respectively.
Matt King is a real estate lawyer who, along with the rest of his large family, has inherited 25,000 acres of pristine land in Hawaii.  In the midst of the tragedy, the family must come to a decision about the future of the land.  The premise of The Descendants is interesting, but the characters are so selfish that any attempt to form a meaningful connection completely lacks resonance and fails to touch the heart.  
While the girls’ performances are convincing, I’m baffled that George Clooney is apparently one of two top contenders for the Oscars’ “Best Actor in a Leading Role.”  It’s interesting to me that the nomination is for “Best Actor,” rather than “Best Performance by an Actor,” because that would imply that a great performance took place.  For Hollywood, George Clooney is the “Best Actor.”  He is one of the last few reliable box office draws, and he’s got staying power that only a few legends in the business, like Clark Gable, Gregory Peck, and Brad Pitt, can rival.  Perhaps the Academy is recognizing him because they are grateful, but gratitude is better shown through nominations recognizing worthy performances, as is the case with Christopher Plummer in Beginners.
Actors have to act, but huge movie stars can just go through the motions and get an Oscar nod.  Yes, Clooney cries, but mostly he grimaces his way through a pointless story, and his enormous star power gets in his way.  It’s not a terrible performance; its just unremarkable and unmemorable.  
Two performances in the film are noteworthy: Robert Forster as Elizabeth’s father, and Judy Greer as the jilted wife of Elizabeth’s lover.  These two performers are at the top of their game.  Greer reveals a fragility and exquisite timing of heartfelt emotion in her few minutes on the screen.  Her performance really was a pleasant surprise, considering that many of her most memorable roles are zany, verging on slapstick.  Forster is perfect as the heartbroken dad whose little girl is slipping away, and he must deal with the double heartache of his wife losing her mind to Alzheimer’s. The young girls in the film are also talented: they have their fleeting moments of sweetness and depth, but overall the daughters’ roles are so unsavory, and seemingly created purely for shock value, that it’s difficult for that talent to shine through.
The film isn’t a dark comedy, but it has ho-hum comedic moments.  It’s a family drama, but with no heart.  It’s a male Lifetime movie passing itself off as an authentic and complex examination of the American family and one man’s struggle to find himself, with messages about the environment and the meaning of family tacked on towards the end as mere afterthoughts.  The Descendants doesn’t live up to the hype.
Reel Mama’s rating: Appropriate for ages 16 and up.  Heavy cursing, adult topics including infidelity, graphic portrayal of a woman lying in a coma.  Refers to teen drinking and drugs.  The 10-year-old girl is over-the-top with the in-your-face shock value (example: she packs her bikini top with sand and calls them her “beach boobs.”)
The film may take place in Hawaii, but after watching it I felt like I needed a vacation.


At July 13, 2012 at 8:24 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whew. Glad someone else thought the movie was very ho-hum. Family leaves dying wife/mother to find wife's lover. Clooney uses two teens as his confidants. Really. One star.


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