1/31: What The Descendants Gets Wrong
Everything. K, great: on to Film #2!
…Fine, it doesn't get everything wrong. It's not necessarily objectively terrible. The writing does a handful of things I can't stand, though, and starts doing them immediately, so I hated the film, and when it did something right, I hated it more for its unrealized potential and follow-through fail.
Take the initial voiceover (…please!) (…Seriously. Please. It's very bad). The narration does nothing the visuals couldn't have on their own, and using a slideshow-ish series of shots that ended on the "Please just wake up" line, over George Clooney's beleaguered face, would have been a strong, elegant choice. Instead, Alexander Payne (Election, for God's sack) went with gluey exposition and self-aware platitudes about paradise.
The script never chooses to show when it could tell instead; nor does it understand that, shown or told, much of the information it wants to convey is dull and extraneous. The real-estate subplot, meant (I assume) to parallel the splintering of Matt's (Clooney) family, is boring; underexplored, somehow (why introduce us to every cousin in creation if the only one who gets any lines is Beau Bridges?); and so on the nose that it is the nose.
The story can't decide what it's about, or how much it's about one thing versus other things, which may explain (if not excuse) why the movie is all over the place tonally, expecting us to laugh at a teenage boy mocking an Alzheimer's sufferer, putting chuckly ukuleles on the soundtrack at weird times, and casting Robert Forster for what is apparently the express purpose of punching another character in the face. Ha…? The scene in which Matt confronts his wife's lover (Matthew Lillard, doing his best) is played initially as farce, then whipsaws into grim drama, and the editing is too slack to sell it.
Alex (Shailene Woodley) is comparatively well written and gets the most credible dialogue; why isn't the movie about her? She knew her mom, now in a persistent vegetative state, was cheating on her dad; that is the story.
Three writers credited on the script; not one of them more interested in dialogue that sounds like real people than in making abstracted points we don't care about. Nick Krause is not great as Alex's (boy?)friend Sid, but it's not his fault — the character as written is a tone-deaf twat — and he has a few interesting moments, like when he mentions to Matt that his father died a few months before. And Matt's response is to stare at him and ask how. No "I'm sorry"? Isn't that automatic? And then a few more lines, and…scene change? The scene wastes about 18 chances to give us something from the Matt character, or draw some less ham-handed parallels.
A lot of the acting is better than you'd expect, given the writing, but Clooney is not very good. He retreats into the shortcut mannerisms we used to see back in the Doug Ross days, lots of head tilts and chin tucks; again, he's working with a point-five-dimensional character whose motivations don't remain consistent within the same scene (see: Matt bellowing at his wife's silent form, then chastising his daughter for doing the same just minutes later — minutes later in the movie, not just onscreen. If the idea is that she'd regret it later if this is her last moment with her mother, okay, but 1) maybe actually communicate that, and 2) it isn't). Bridges is no great shakes either; as reader attica put it, he's doing a Poor Man's The Dude shtick, and he's not even committing to it fully.
The movie is a lazy, disorganized mess that thinks the baked-in sadness of the subject matter is a substitute for having something coherent to say. Occasionally, a scene or an actor's facial expression will hint at one of the two dozen other movies I would rather have seen based on this material, but the script doesn't care about the people, and as a result, I hated them — and the drecky movie.
But it's nice to know Little Joe has absorbed a few critical insights.
Tags: 31 Days 31 Films Alexander Payne bad screenplay no biscuit Beau Bridges Couch Baron George Clooney Little Joe Matthew Lillard movies Nick Krause Robert Forster Shailene Woodley The Descendants