The UnPopular Opinion: The Descendants
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
****SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
As 2015 winds to a close, studios are beginning to trot out their final awards contenders. Well, at least the films they feel should be awards contenders. You know the movies: heartfelt dramas about love and loss, sweeping romantic epics, and smaller independent films that are character studies or showcases for Hollywood actors known for bigger films. Each year, at least two or three movies are critically lauded as a sure-fire Oscar contender and many of them pick up some trophies along the way. But, when you watch the film, you see right through the transparent facade of what we come to know as "Oscar bait". These are the movies that hit all of the right notes to be considered one of the best films of the year, but it is all frosting. Underneath that superficial layer, you are left with a mediocre film and, in some cases, a bad movie. THE DESCENDANTS is one of those films.
Make no mistake, I am a fan of the films of Alexander Payne. Few directors do as well at making films about upper midde class men dealing with existential crises like Payne. From ELECTION and ABOUT SCHMIDT to SIDEWAYS and the excellent NEBRASKA, Payne has found a way to explore the slightly odd and slightly surreal worlds of characters dealing with middle age. It should come as no surprise that THE DESCENDANTS attempts to mine that same formula. What should have been the ace for Payne in making THE DESCENDANTS his best film was getting a star as big as George Clooney to play his lead. Set the film in gorgeous Hawaii and you have a movie that should be an automatic success. But, that is the key: THE DESCENDANTS just feels like it is on automatic and never goes deeper in any regard.
Everything about THE DESCENDANTS feels generic. Despite the tropical setting, there is nothing truly unique about the film. Clooney is at his best playing a character that is unlike himself. The actor has done great work in films like SYRIANA, BURN AFTER READING, O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, and MICHAEL CLAYTON. Clooney quite often seems to be playing it so subtle that people just assume he is playing himself (see UP IN THE AIR, THE IDES OF MARCH). THE DESCENDANTS doesn't give Clooney much to do but play a man responsible for a massive amount of land that belongs to his family while dealing with a dying wife whom he learns has been secretly cheating on him. He also has two daughters, one of whom is an addict, while the other is lashing out violently at school. You would think there would be some room for big dramatic moments in the film, but the heartrate of this movie never gets above a brisk walk.
Shailene Woodley broke out in his first big screen role and even garnered nominations for her portrayal as young Alex, but her entire character is key to what is inherently wrong with THE DESCENDANTS. FOr as much as George Clooney feels like he is playing a variation of himself, all of the female characters are starkly and profoundly unreleastic. Woodley is the most prominent female role but she is reduced to a screaming, whining, and thoroughly broken individual. It could be said that this was how the character needed to be portrayed in service of the film's story, but every female shown in this movie is the same way. Judy Greer's character is a sobbing mess while young Amara Miller is a pre-pubescent disaster. Even the brief turn by Mary Birdsong as family friend makes her yet another stereotypical take on the "weaker sex".
As with Cameron Crowe's reviled ALOHA, there is a very strong feeling of THE DESCENDANTS as being white-washed. Plot-wise, the film is reverent about life in Hawaii and gives the King family deep roots in the history of the island, but this movie is squarely about "white people problems". Clooney is dealing with a cheating spouse and whether to sell his family's estate worth millions of dollars. His wife's lover is the man his family is planning to sell the property to. His wife is nearing the end of her life after a boating accident. As much as I feel for the pain the family is enduring, the entire film has a feeling of woe and sympathy and yet never earns the righ for the audience to sympathize with the characters.
But, THE DESCENDANTS just feels like a movie that you should like and should appreciate. The critics all loved it and audiences all told their friends about that great new George Clooney movie they saw that made them cry. But, THE DESCENDANTS is just a movie that is designed to make you emotional. That doesn't mean it is a good or effective movie, just that it knows which notes to hit in order to give the semblance of a heart-tugging tale. If you go back and watch the movie with a level head, years away from it's initial release, you find it is a forgettable and generic film, which is a shame given the talent involved. I truly wish this movie was better but I feel a need to call out the fact that it is not.
Maybe it was the seven years that Alexander Payne was away from filmmaking that left him rusty, but THE DESCENDANTS feels like a movie that should have come a lot earlier in his career. Ultimately, it is a perfect example of Oscar bait and nothing more. While actors like Nicolas Cage and Bruce Willis descend into generic, Redbox action films that belittle their prior career achievements, THE DESCENDANTS will remain an example of exactly the type of generic fare George Clooney could find himself making over and over again if he isn't careful. Every year, the Academy Awards laud trophies on movies like this when there are countless others more deserving. The next time you see this movie come on cable or decide to watch it on Netflix, keep in mind there are better films from every single person involved in front of and behind the camera and choose one of those instead.