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Home » Culture and Criticism

1/31: What The Descendants Gets Wrong

Submitted by on December 1, 2011 – 11:55 AM26 Comments

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.




  • Stephanie says:

    I haven’t seen the movie and thus have no thoughts on it, but this photo makes me realize that sometimes the camera can make anyone look bad. Even Intern George.

  • […] We’re not going to be doing the same film every day, but we did for the kickoff; you can read Sarah’s take on The Descendants over on Tomato Nation here! […]

  • Cappy says:

    I actually think the characters were very believable for the most part. It’s OK to create a character who has depth beyond the scope of the movie. I liked he conversation between Matt and Sid; it provided a deeper glimpse into Sid’s life than we had seen up to that point. Did that come into play later in the movie? Not really, but it wouldn’t have made it a more compelling plot if Sid’s previous chess experience ended up saving the day in the end. The argument could be made that he wasn’t even a very necessary character to begin with, but I don’t think that was the goal of the writers. He was believable, and they used his character development to push the plot along gently rather than by force.

    I think about movies like Knocked Up, where out of nowhere you get a glimpse into the life of the bouncer at the club. It doesn’t have any direct impact on the plot, but it’s a thoughtful anecdote about this otherwise unimportant character. In my mind, the polar opposite would be something like Back to the Future, where almost every insignificant detail of every character ends up coming into play in the plot somehow. I would say both movies are very well written, but I get the sense that the universe of Knocked Up greatly exceeds the range of the movie itself. Maybe that’s why a spin off seems like a great idea.

  • attica says:

    Interesting: I found that the uke breaks struck me as poignant, not jaunty. I wonder why that is. (Not the Don Ho-type stuff, though. That’s never not tiki-tacky.) Maybe I have a sympathetic nervous system that resonates with plaintive plucking.

    I don’t know when the last time I saw Ontkean. 70s, probably (Had a childhood crush on him in The Rookies, as required by then-law). So: why no lines?

    One last thing: I wouldn’t know the word ‘howli’ if it weren’t for Sarah Vowell’s book Unfamiliar Fishes.* It’s used in the film several times. For all the other exposition, how did that bit of local slang miss tranlation?

    *Enthusiastically recommended.

  • Dorinda says:

    so on the nose that it is the nose

    I just had to quote that so I could sit here and admire it.

    Also: nooooo on the Doug Ross Mannerisms! That’s terrible news. I had always heard that Soderbergh was the one who originally beat those out of Clooney–maybe someone needs to get Steven on the horn and bring him over for another intervention.

  • attica says:

    Though this is faint praise, Clooney’s other fall offering, The Ides of March, was waaaaaaaaaay higher on the OMGsostooopid scale. Good looking movie, well acted, but, boy that script got beaten with a moron-hammer.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    But that had Gosling for me to look at.

  • Kathleen says:

    The book, by Kaui Hart Hemmings is Really good. Sounds like it didn’t translate well, bummer. Unfamliar Fishes by Sarah Volwell is also great, while we’re reading about Hawaii…

  • Kristen says:

    I never comment but I read your blog all the time, and I love this post. Why was The Descendants so overrated? The voiceover was inexcusable! It was also amazing that in a movie so willing to rely on lazy voiceover, the dialogue was also so exposition-y and clunky.

    Actually I loved Sid though — he was the only funny thing, which meant he was the only interesting thing.

  • attica says:

    Well, yes, all the Ides Pretty was nice. In fact, I didn’t realize how dumb the movie was until after I’d left, when there wasn’t any more Pretty to distract me. ;)

  • Jenn says:

    So is the movie supposed to be a drama or a comedy? The plot sounds like a drama, but all the ads I’ve seen market it as a comedy.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    I think it’s supposed to be a dramedy. Unfortunately, the writing hamstrings the comedic elements.

  • Deanna says:

    I wish I still lived in Hawaii. I’d love to hear a native islander’s take on a movie about a rich, white landowner and the sale of land. Talk about unsympathetic characters…

  • Marilyn says:

    I’m so with you on this review it hurts. I would have liked to depopulate the entire film and just look at Hawaii and listen to the music. Now THAT would have been a good film.

  • Kathleen says:

    @ Deanna, in the book, he isn’t haole, he’s a “decendant…”
    I’m assuming they’re passing off George’s Itailan good looks as Local/ Hapa / golden….

  • Sandman says:

    Among the many things that irk me about Quentin Tarantino must be counted his choice to resuscitate the career of Robert Forster, which surely flatlined for a very good reason. I can’t even tell if, objectively, he gives a good or bad performance as Intern George’s (hee) father-in-law. Forster’s just so annoying and awful. It’s as if he’s reading his lines in all-caps ALL. THE. TIME.

    I thought many in the cast, the Cloon included, did what they could, but the script seemed tone-deaf so much of the time. Is it Payne? I don’t remember watching Sideways and thinking “But, but … people don’t actually behave like this.” I kept thinking that all the way through this movie.

    It did make me want to visit Hawaii, though.

  • Meg says:

    This Hawai’i local (haole but “born and raised”–trust me, we make the distinction) is coming late to the party (and still need to see the movie…damn it), but here’s what I’ve been hearing from my local friends who currently live on the mainland. For whatever reason, this movie is hitting “home” with them–it seems to be the first movie that gets Hawai’i “right”. I’ll reserve judgment until I go down to Koko Marina and check it out, but I would offer that if the film is getting the feel of home (what it means to live here as a local, albeit a land-rich, Outrigger Canoe Club-attending, descendent-of-the-missionaries local (heh)) accurately, I’ll forgive it many other sins.

    And damn, but I want to see the boarding school scenes. My first teaching job was in one of those dorms (well, the HPA ones; I think the movie was filmed at Mid-Pacific Institute).

  • truthluvr says:

    This movie is so incredibly horrible. it is sickening. the dialogue is horrific. the humor pathetic. trying to put humor into a movie with a dying mom on her death bed, is tasteless. I hate every single thing about his movie. They won people obviously with all the crying, and a few incredibly emotional scenes by Clooney. This is probably the worst movie I’ve ever seen in my life…IT IS HORRIBLE. JUST HORRIBLE.

  • BachFan says:

    @Meg, what I’ve heard is that many kama’aina like “The Descendants” because it shows life in Oahu away from Waikiki — granted, it’s wealthy-landowner-who-deliberately-doesn’t-live-wealthy-life, but it’s still local life.

    Waiting on my sister’s review of the movie … she used to live on Kaua’i and still owns a house there. But I thought it was disappointing — not as horrible as Sars thought, but not as good as it could have been.

  • Gordon Yamamoto says:

    It’s really just a soap opera that happens to be set in Hawaii. Who cares about a multi-millionaire lawyer anyway and his brat kids slurping up melting ice cream? The book version is awful, but the movie makes it worse.

  • […] The Oscar nominations are being announced tomorrow morning, and unlike most recent years, I’m not really jazzed about the frontrunners. I mean, I liked The Artist well enough, and I didn’t hate The Descendants, though that little brat of a teenage boy sure pulled me out of the story every five seconds. When a film has a character that is so obviously inserted into scenes just to let the filmmaker make a joke or a point, then I get annoyed. (For an excellent report on that movie’s limitations, check out Sarah Bunting’s write-up.) […]

  • KellyK says:

    “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.” I sooo agree. I did what I usually do after I see a movie that intrigues me one way or another: I looked at the reviews afterward. I felt so alone that they were all so gushing and positive. Yes, I cried through it. It pushed my buttons. I gave into that part. But I knew it was terrible. In a good movie, just like in a good short story or novel, the end resonates with the a powerful core at the center of the entire story. It doesn’t need to be blatantly obvious, spilling it out…but subtlety is no substitute either when a strong core is lacking. So they sat on the couch together, father and daughters, covered themselves with the blanket the mother died under, and I believe we are supposed to feel that their love and acceptance of the mother’s death unites them. So they were all so separate, like the archipelago defined in the voiceover at the beginning, and the death of the bad mother (who never had a voice in the film but came off like an incredible brat) brought them together. The story just didn’t support that ending, or any ending that I can think of. No coherence.

  • Paula says:

    The lead is all narcissism. The story is about the daughter and how she navigates loosing her mother, dealing with her inept father and the secret of the affair. That is the story. We could get behind her- she is young and we want to see her change, do well, and grow up a little.
    He being a millionair- even his wife’s lover was only with her to get to HIS money. It’s always all about him and he acts like a weird child. The worst.
    I can see how the acadomy members need to be fifty percent women.
    I walked out of the artist as well. HORRIBLE- to watch the lead throw a tantrum for an hour until he sets his apartment on fire- seriously. Why was she in love with him? He acted like a baby.
    So, I guess if a women 18 years older than some young actor acted this way- the young hot guy would hang around, in love and rescue her? Yeah, okay-I’ll hold my breath.
    Tree of like and malancholia- both about getting really baked and making a film.
    The White Ribbon- awesomeness. Drive-scary, weird, engageing.

  • Tellyscope says:

    I thought The Descendants was massively overrated, and seriously dull. Click here to see my full review:

  • Rebecca says:

    Seriously, I don’t get all the hoopla over this film. I thought it was outright corny, and the acting was bad all the way around. Just so darn melodramatic. The best thing about it was the scenery.

  • Amy Hartman says:

    THANK YOU!!! Spot-on! And- this movie won multiple national awards?? I’ve lost my faith in the Golden Globe organization.

    This movie was an almost complete waste of time.

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