I’m in two minds as to whether The Descendants deserves more than three and a half stars. Half of me wants to raise it to four, and the other half is telling me to not be such a coward. At the time of its release, so many critics sang its praises, claiming that this was the performance of George Clooney’s career. I’m not disputing that. What I am disputing is that this film “will go down in history” as a masterpiece. Don’t get me wrong, it is good, but it is not outstanding. It is affecting and successful as a family drama, in that it is funny and moving, but it left me somewhat underwhelmed considering the hype. Perhaps that’s the problem, that I shouldn’t have considered the hype, but it was hard not to when the fact that it won an Academy Award and two Golden Globes was plastered all over advertisements.
The story follows Matt King (George Clooney), a lawyer based in Honolulu, whose wife has been put into a coma after a boating accident. King has some important decisions to make regarding a new development on some land for which he is trustee, the outcome of which will not only affect his family, but also the landscape of Hawaii. Tensions rise as secrets are revealed, and there is the expected family bonding through times of strife, as seen in so many dramas concerning the emotional distance between fathers and their children.
A lot of the point of the movie was to show that life in a place that others consider tropical or exotic, can be just as “messed up” as life anywhere else. For me, this message is stressed somewhat too transparently by the opening lines, leaving little room for development. “My friends on the mainland think just because I live in Hawaii, I live in paradise” is followed shortly by “Hell, I haven’t been on a surfboard in 15 years” and “Paradise? Paradise can go f–k itself.” Some people may see this as refreshing – appreciating or feeling thrilled by the straightforwardness. I was, instead, disappointed that the film’s manifesto was announced in black and white terms so quickly. Matt King is aware of the contradiction of being depressed on an island so beautiful – perhaps too aware – meaning that his proceeding moodiness is at times wearing.
I would say that the comedy is what marks this film out as better than average. George Clooney is amazing because he is allowed to be himself; he is given freedom to be comical. Yes, this probably is the performance of his career, because in The Descendants he shows that he can be at once troubled, angry, and distressed, and at the same time retain a lightness and a witticism. This witticism comes naturally to him; at times I feel that he lends the film more interludes of humour than were intended in the script, but perhaps that’s just my naivety in forgetting that all the actors would have been directed off camera. Shailene Woodley is good, she delivers a convincing performance, and her emotion never seems forced. My only criticism is that she is slightly irritating. Is she meant to be? Maybe. But I still found her too perfect for a girl suffering from serious issues. Judy Greer’s performance is as expected; her character is sweet, but played with a nervous energy that suggests neurosis (her scene with Elizabeth is a good example of this). Matthew Lillard is satisfactorily slimy as Brian Speer, and it is good to see him in a decent role after so long a hiatus, but his performance is still not necessarily challenging. The acting all round is solid, but never too phenomenal, except for maybe in Clooney’s case.
The majority of the script handles the family dynamic well, and as I’ve not read the book, I’m not sure how well it translates the original story, but considering that it won Best Adapted Screenplay the least I can do is assume it was successful in that respect. I did choke up at the end when Matt kisses his wife goodbye with the line “Goodbye, Elizabeth. Goodbye, my love, my friend, my pain, my joy. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye” which sounds soppy here, but once you’ve sat through two hours of a husband deliberating over whether to love or hate his comatose wife, this final farewell hits you like a ton of bricks. There are other gems, such as “His name is Brian Speer. Two e’s.” in reference to the man whose infidelity is the cause of much of the agony of the film. The play on the word ‘spear’ is clever, with the name suggesting the infliction of pain. The spelling difference then distances the person from this idea of weaponry and harm, as Brian is himself distanced from the chaos he is connected with.
I’m sure that there is so much that could be said about geology and ecology within this film, but on first watch it’s hard to make an analysis. Mountains are everywhere, from birds eye views of the Hawaiian landscape, to pictures mounted on the hospital walls. This imagery of nature in both its most raw form, and within public spaces, reflects the dual concerns of the film.
The Descendants deals with both comedy and tragedy, and this is what makes it interesting. My criticism comes from my high expectations mostly, but I do not wish to take away from the fact that the film is still good. The music is brilliant, the soundtrack made up entirely of Hawaiian music, showcasing a range of talent that many people will not have heard before. Visually and sonically the film is a success, and all in all it is a highly enjoyable viewing experience.
FINAL VERDICT: ★★★1/2