Release Date: November 23, 2011
Director: Alexander Payne
Writers: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (screenplay), Kaui Hart Hemmings (novel)
Stars:George Clooney, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller
MPAA Rating: R
The Descendants is an odd film that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. It’s too lighthearted and comedic to be a straight drama, but also too weighty and emotional to be a true comedy (dark or otherwise). The resulting mash up of comedy and drama is a sometimes great and incredibly quirky, though ultimately uneven, film.
It stars George Clooney, which instantly gives it a certain amount of gravitas (though it also features Matthew Lillard in a prominent role, which may cancel out that gravitas). And though there’s already Oscar buzz surrounding Clooney’s performance (as there typically is with all of his performances these days), this is a far more comedic Clooney than we’ve seen in some time. He makes silly reaction faces, ducks down into bushes to avoid being spotted and spouts of wry one-liners to his daughter’s slow-witted boyfriend.
The TV spots have played up the sillier elements on the film, focusing on Clooney’s character (Matt King) stalking his wife’s lover (Brian Speer, played by Lillard). They completely avoid the film’s central plot – which is that King’s wife is in a coma she’s unlikely to wake up from after a serious boating accident. He finds out she cheated on him after she’s already in the coma and must deal with that news while also dealing with his two troublesome daughters and the pending sale of a sizable amount of land his family owns in Hawaii.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with having light, comedic moments in a serious drama to help release the tension built up by the heavier scene. But the comedy in this film often seems at odds with the more serious central plot. It’s a silly, almost sitcom-ish style of comedy built around characters making clever quips or doing wacky things. That style doesn’t ring true to the way authentic comedic moments organically spring up in our everyday lives, which undercuts the film’s more dramatic scenes – or, at the very least, seems at odds with them.
To me, it felt like two very different films were battling it out the whole time. Both films – the comedic one and the dramatic one – were enjoyable, but they didn’t really seem to gel together. It felt a bit like the cinematic equivalent of a peanut butter and tuna fish sandwich.
Though it does seem at odds with itself, the film does feature some wonderful performances. Clooney, unsurprisingly, is great in the lead – he’s able to switch gears from comedy to drama effortlessly and he presents us with a very likable and sympathetic character. Shailene Woodley gives a phenomenal performance as King’s daughter Alexandra, who is the one who breaks the news to her dad that his comatose wife was cheating on him. Her character is such a conflicted one and her scenes with Clooney are easily the best in the film. And Robert Forster gives a powerful performance as King’s father-in-law, who blames King for the accident.
Most of the comedic weight falls on the shoulders of Nick Krause and Amara Miller. Krause plays Alexandra’s obtuse boyfriend Sid. I found his character a bit grating early in the film, but he grew on me as time went on. Miller plays King’s youngest daughter Scottie and though she is perfectly charming in the part, too much of her role centers around Scottie saying and doing things that are age-inappropriate, which seems like a well-worn cinematic trope at this point.
The best stretch of the film is when King attempts to hunt down his wife’s lover. Without having her to talk to about the affair, he wants to find Speers to make sense of her betrayal. The quest also gives him a reason to spend time with Alexandra, who insists on tagging along to confront Speers with him. His conflicted emotions and their bonding are very moving to watch.
The land development subplot, which has a considerable amount of screen time, is used mostly to shed light on King’s odd heritage in Hawaii. He is a descendant of Hawaiian royalty – his great-great grandfather married a descendant of King Kamehameha – and his family owns a huge patch of untouched beachfront property. However, their lease on the land runs out in seven years, so they are looking to sell it to a developer before they lose any financial compensation.
Between the land sale, his daughters and the revelation about his wife, King has a lot on his plate. Luckily, he does a better job balancing it all than the film does balancing its comedic and dramatic moments.
It’s by no means a bad film. In fact, it has quite a few memorable scenes that will stick with you. But The Descendants does feel like a film at odds with itself, unsure of exactly what it wants to be. And that inconsistency keeps it from being truly great.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.