Monday, December 12, 2011

The Descendants


Matt King has real problems. These aren't the kind of over-the-top, save-the-world problems of blockbuster action films. Nor are they the overly sentimental and easily overcome conflicts of most romantic comedies (you know, the ones where a minor miscommunication becomes the climatic and emotionally-driven relational tension). His wife is in a coma, the result of a boating accident. He has a huge business proposal that also involves his extended family members. He's been a mediocre husband and a poor parent, and wants to become better at both. He lives in the tropical paradise of Honolulu, but pointedly narrates that paradise is only such to those on the outside. His world is not a constant stream of Mai-Tais and suntanning. He's got bills to pay, a law practice to run, daughters to raise, and a dying wife in the hospital. Matt crassly but sincerely narrates that "paradise can go f*** itself."

The Descendants and its problems feels real much of the time. Matt (George Clooney) handles them all with a strained contemplation. He's thinking a lot throughout the film; there are plenty of ideas and emotions swirling inside him. Matt's narration feels right in this film, as it offers insight into the depths of his soul musings. When Matt's teenage daughter, Alex (Shailene Woodley), offers the revelation that his comatose wife had been having an affair, he mulls it over. He wrings his hands, paces the room, clenches his jaw. His spontaneous run from his home to a friend's house to confront them about the affair's veracity is about as emotionally charged as any dramatic outburst one would expect from another film.

The news of the affair leads Matt, his two daughters, and a tagalong named Sid on a quest to Kauai to find the adulterer. What will happen when they find him? Matt doesn't really know. He's thought about it plenty, but no clear conclusions are coming to mind. Matt is a thinker, not a doer, but this quest for the truth behind his wife's deceit brings out the proactive side of him. Alex also appears to need answers, and Matt, for better or worse, invites her to be a part of the journey. While still displaying some emotional immaturity at times, Alex feels very grown up for a 17-year-old. It was refreshing to see a teen navigating some adult problems alongside her parent.

The Descendants has fantastic acting and a great script, yet I felt like I should have liked it more than I did. George Clooney is great, and his Shailene Woodley is even better, but...I saw it coming. The end, I mean. I saw it all coming, and when I'm not surprised or emotionally drawn in, it's unnerving. I felt aloof from the film, from the characters. I wanted to be with them, to share in their griefs and joys, and there were moments when I did. But for a film that offers authenticity and empathy, I left the theater feeling more admiration for the production than soul-stirring affection. Maybe you'll be surprised. Maybe you'll be so deeply moved that you cry your eyes out, particularly at the climax. I didn't. And I'm a cryer. Ask my wife. Apart from a brief moment of grace between two women, and an ongoing theme of the importance of our personal history, The Descendants is a film I respect, not a film that I loved. It will get nominated for plenty of Oscars. It might even win a few. I'll respect that, but I won't love it.

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