The Oscars are almost here! …..Yep, I don’t really care either. Most of the nominees I haven’t seen. I did manage to see The Descendants though, for a couple of reasons. One is that I like a good drama. It’s easy to blow things up, it’s somewhat easier to make people laugh, but for a drama to be good it has to capture your attention for every second of the movie. Two is that I like George Clooney. What do you want me to say, the dude has charisma and he can act. This film did indeed capture my attention for the duration. It has a fun location coupled with plot scenario that’s so strange that I couldn’t help but want to know how it plays out. While I do not feel it’s a film that deserves to be seriously considered for Best Picture, it is most definitely a film that is worthy of your eyeballs.
George Clooney plays Matt King, one of those guys who on the surface appears to have everything. He lives in Hawaii. He’s a practicing lawyer who with his family owns a huge patch of prime real estate that resorts are just itching to buy for obscene amounts of money. He has a beautiful wife and two healthy children. Until his life completely changes. His wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) gets in a boating accident, leaving her in a coma. Matt, a loving but somewhat distant father, is suddenly thrust in to being THE sole parent of his two daughters Alex (Shailene Woodley) who is 17 and Scottie (Amara Miller) who is 10. To say that he’s unsure of how to do so is an understatement. Dealing with two young girls who are also dealing with their mom being in a coma, never mind that the mom is also his wife? Good luck.
The real drive of the plot comes a bit in, so I guess spoiler if you want to enter the movie fresh. Alex reveals to Matt that Elizabeth had been cheating on him, and she knows the guys name: Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). With Elizabeth’s condition not improving and Matt fighting to keep himself and daughters not coming apart at the seams, they set out on a small vacation to a neighboring island to get away for a bit….and track down Brian. Tragedy and love make people do crazy things, so when both are combined here, this actually isn’t as nuts as it sounds.
Woodley and Miller really shine as the children here. Miller is so innocent it hurts, even when she’s yelling obscenities she learned from her sister over and over again. She’s at that age where it’s not that she isn’t afraid to just speak whatever is on her mind all the time, it’s that being afraid too hasn’t even occurred to her. Considering this is a child ACTING like she has no idea about how the world works (when in reality she’s a ten-year old in a major movie) it’s impressive. Woodley is even more impressive, threatening to upstage Clooney, and pulling it off in a few scenes. Alex is fighting against being treated like a child by everybody (and succeeding). I loved her relationship with Scottie and how it evolved, going from big sister who is annoyed by her to more a mentor or even mother figure. Her recognition that Scottie needs a female presence in her life now more than ever is touching and subtle. It’s a natural evolving relationship that feels real, and I give credit to both young actresses involved.
Despite Woodley’s efforts, Clooney is the real star here. He’s convincing in all of the emotional aspects he goes through in the film. His sadness at his wife laying in a hospital bed. His concern for his two daughters. His fear that he has no idea how to help them. Anger at both his wife and this Brian Speer guy who was sleeping with her. His natural charisma is purposefully muted a bit here, but there’s just enough confidence and swagger left that when he sets off to find Brian Speer with no clear idea of what he’ll do, I believed he could pull it off and not go insane in the process.
There are a couple of things holding the film back from being great. First, and despite popular opinion, the soundtrack. It’s all native Hawaiian music. Now, I get it. That’s where they are. A little of it would have been fine. It felt like that every single time we entered a scene where dialogue wasn’t instantly happening there was the ukulele starting up and the same guy harmonizing over it….it got old and honestly felt out-of-place. This is a slow burning and subtle film and this music was neither. I was taken out of the context of the film after about the third time I heard it. The second was the subplot of Matt’s family giving him opinions on who to sell the land too (they all own it but Matt is the sole trustee and thus has final decision). These scenes, although few, weren’t really interesting and failed to move the plot along. I feel like this story should have ended up on the cutting room floor.
What strikes me most about The Descendants is how sad it is. It’s a heavy movie. There are moments of levity and as Matt and Alex employ a few tricks to try to track down Speer, I almost forgot that while this detective style stuff is fun, they’re here because Elizabeth is in a coma. Not one character in this film isn’t almost completely changed by the end of it, and I believed every single one of those was earned. Despite its flaws, The Descendants is a film worth the time, though not in my opinion not deserved of an Oscar.