The Descendants is Mostly Great: a Recommendation from Steve

The Descendants, starring George Clooney, is mostly great and nearly made it into my top 3 for the year, maybe even all the way to No. 1. It turns out that “mostly” and “nearly” are fairly important modifiers. Fortunately, most of the movie is wonderful. Unfortunately, the parts that aren’t wonderful are remarkably weak. Much like in The Help, I find it stupefying that a movie could contain material that felt so brilliant and true along side material that felt so banal and false. Again, fortunately, most of the movie falls in the first category, so overall I do highly recommend it. Just be prepared to cringe once in a while.

Let’s start with the good stuff. That conversation clearly begins with Clooney. He is terrific, quite deserving of the Best Actor nomination. He has to juggle an amazing array of emotions with out being too obvious about any of them. His character, Matt King, faces not only a wife in a coma due to a boating accident, but also the news that she had been cheating on him. Her condition forces him to be the primary parent for two daughters (ages 17 and 10) that he barely knows because he has been so focused on his work as a lawyer. At the same time, his extended family is awaiting his decision as the sole trustee for the family’s trust that includes a large parcel of undeveloped land in Hawaii. A change in the law requires them to sell the land within seven years or lose it. A few want to keep it undeveloped, most want it sold so they can enjoy the millions that it will bring to the family. Add to this the need to decide about taking his wife off of life support and an encounter with the man his wife was have the affair with and Matt has more on his plate than anyone should have to deal with. Clooney’s ability to present the layers of emotions that all of these plot points bring out is the greatest asset of this mostly great movie.

We’ve come to expect that kind of performance from Clooney. Unexpected, but no less amazing, is Shailene Woodley’s performance as Alexandra, the older daughter. She is the one who must break the news of her mother’s affair. She does a masterful job as a teenager struggling to grow up and trying to make sense of how she feels about her dying mother. Matthew Lillard, as the man in the affair, and Judy Greer, as his wife, give strong performances. Beau Bridges, as Hugh, the only cousin who gets enough screen time to get a sense of his character, is also quite good. In addition to those fine performances, the movie also excels in presenting in presenting the complexity of life. The bottom line seems to be that grace is possible. We can move on from the things we have messed up and strive to live in a better way. All of that, along with Alexander Payne’s assured sense of direction, makes this a movie well worth seeing.

Why then the “mostly” and “nearly” qualifiers at the beginning of this recommendation? As wonderful as so much of this movie was, it was kept from true greatness by the incredible ineptitude in presenting a number of the supporting characters. Although, the younger daughter Scottie and Alexandra’s friend Sid grew on me, there was too much that felt false and forced about their characters. This was also true for Matt’s father-in-law, Kai and Mark (friends of Matt and his wife), Scottie’s teacher and counselor, and Alex’s dorm supervisor. That is just too many weak characters, minor though some of them are, to call this a truly great movie. I think the problem lies with the writing, not the acting. There is a rule of thumb that multiple writers for a movie is a sign of trouble. This movie lists three writers in the credits. Interestingly, they are nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. For about 80% of the movie they deserve an Oscar, but for the other 20% I’m not sure they even deserve the nomination. Yes, I thought it was that bad! The weak writing showed up not just in the characters, but in the plot as well. The big family meeting to decide about the land sale fell on the same day that the life support was removed from Matt’s wife. Sure, it created dramatic tension, but it also felt incredibly contrived. They had seven years to make a decision, so what family would be heartless enough not o postpone the meeting. Things like that drag the movie down, but not too far. It is, indeed, mostly great and lands in my top 5 for the year.

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