What is the Hype About The Descendants?

Ensign Lestat's Film Log, 03/03/2012

'The Descendants' follows Matt King (George Clooney), a real estate lawyer living in Hawaii, who has to confront his wife's motor-boat accident and impending death; contend with his two daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller); deal with a family decision regarding land owned by his ancestors and finally a rather awkward truth that he learns about his wife.

We are made aware from the beginning (through the great film technique of voiceover narration that promptly stops partway through the film) that Matt has been a mostly absent father who has great philosophies regarding child-rearing. Following his wife's injury, he is finding it difficult to cope with the demands of his 10-year-old, Scottie. He is also the sole trustee of the decision on several thousand acres of land owned by his ancestors (one of whom was a Native Hawaiian). He meets often with his several cousins, each of whom has a different buyer for the land, and each spends their time convincing him that their choice is best.

When things come to a head, Matt and Scottie head to a nearby island where 17-year-old Alexandra's school is. They find her in the middle of the night, attempting to play golf with a friend - she is very obviously inebriated.

Once Alexandra is back in Matt's house, she blurts out a piece of information about her mother heretofore unknown to Matt. The rest of the film is spent in the two of them trying prove and confront that information. Matt continues to deal with the land situation, as well as help adjust to his new responsibilities.

It is actually rather hard to write a synopsis of this film, as, much to my horror, nothing much happens in it. It doesn't really come across as tedious and boring as the previous statement may imply - after all this isn't an action/ heist film, it's a family drama.

The story is adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel of the same name. The location is unique - a family living, not vacationing in Hawai, and of native descent. Also, the situation with the mother, who has to be legally taken off life-support, is new to me in film terms (that may be because I don't watch that many dramas). I believe the book must be a heart-warming read, but on film I found it hard to connect with the characters.

First up there's Matt, yet another absent father only now realising what he's missed out all these years. Then there are the children. I probably shouldn't be complaining, since, for all I know, the children are true-to-life representations of the average children living in those parts, but I found them precocious and annoying. Scottie appears to be in a whole other world, completely unaware of what her mother's situation is (not completely, but mostly), and Alexandra is a typical American teenager - always on the phone, appears to have been on drugs in the past, always angry - she's the whole package. Granted she does have rightful reason to be angry, but she doesn't come across as a very unique character.

What I found really strange is how the entire world is portrayed as bullying, brow-beating poor, hapless Matt. Everyone seems to be against him - his wife's closest friend, her father, his cousins. I wonder if its because, from Matt's point of view, anything people say is some kind of encroachment on his own little zone, a zone where he is the grieving husband of his dying wife. It's just a theory.

The film has been nominated for five major categories at this year's Academy Awards - Best Picture, Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Director and Editing. I know that for at least three of these categories this film is a surefire winner. But I unfortunately do not agree. I am trying to blame this negativity on my biases but I don't think I can.

What does a performance require to be a Best Actor winner? - stunning acting. Acting that draws you in despite yourself. Clooney made me smile a few times in this film, but I didn't feel anything during the 'dramatic' moments.

What about Screenplay and Directing? I can honestly say I just couldn't figure out what was so mesmeric about this film. There is nothing engaging about these people and characters, which I'm pretty sure is not the case with the book. And if that is the case, then the director, Alexander Payne ('Sideways'), has failed in his efforts.

I don't know why it's got an Editing nomination. The editing didn't strike me at all. This is no 'Crash', which, I believe, still has the most outstanding editing I have ever seen (even though the film just isn't that enjoyable any more).

What makes a Best Picture winner? I don't know - spot-on acting, writing, uniqueness? The stuff that's won is varied, and some are now considered poor choices. This probably will not be considered one of the latter, as everyone will regard it as a feel-good film about families coming together at a time of crises. Which it probably is, but since I really didn't care much for the characters I didn't feel all that 'good' after the film. I just felt it was over hyped. It didn't help that Matt's decision about the land could be seen from a mile away. I don't know if it could have been made more suspenseful, but fact is, we all knew what his decision was going to be. And what was most off-putting was that during the scene where he is declaring his final decision, one of the cousins who is being spoken to doesn't react at all. He just looks blank. Poor acting and direction there. Maybe a lot of people missed that, but it was staring me in the face. On the other hand some of the rest of the supporting cast were seriously over-the-top in their efforts. My goodness, I felt like I could scream!

I guess I'm just a malcontent. I wanted other nominees in most of the categories this film is in, and that may have seeped through when I was watching, but I don't think 'The Descendants' is a spectacular piece of cinema with outstanding acting and engaging characters. Clooney doesn't put a foot wrong, but he didn't blow me away either.

Come Oscar time I will have to sit through these people accepting their awards, but I just feel this film could have been a lot better, in which case it may have actually deserved a nomination.


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