Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Descendants (2011)

As a significant Alexander Payne fan I'd be lying if I didn't say I was disappointed with The Descendants, his forth feature film and his first since 2006. At least compared to his three previous efforts and especially his last and my favorite, Sideways. I don't really think as a director he is overrated like some do, but maybe his latest film is. Perhaps it is somewhat unfair to do so, but his movies tend to warrant comparison given their similar cues and nuances; all low key stories composed merely with different players and settings. I couldn't really review this one without making them unfortunately, though I tried not to let that overtake the experience too much.

The story initially revolves around Matt King (George Clooney) trying to handle his two daughters after his wife is put into a boat accident induced coma. It is a meandering tale but this is what he (Payne) does after all and that wasn't a problem I had with it. Plus I do always admire his typical laid back technical approach employed here again. The characters are no more or less likable than any of the others in his films either, but perhaps a shallowness does exist with the family a little too obviously despite a brief monologue by Matt at the start of the film, decrying people's attitudes towards others without understanding the full story. The balance of humor and drama is just as - or maybe even more - successful as it was in Payne's other pictures. Unfortunately I just wasn't able to get invested emotionally as I was with those previous films. This is important for truly appreciating an Alexander Payne film I believe and definitely, I was unable to get to the point that you need to be to find The Descendants truly great. It didn't quite move me even though it tries so hard. Therefore I could only find it merely good, but it is not all doom and gloom; the closeness that the Kings experience due to the events in the film is a positive thing. 

The good is that it is never really dull and it does improve during the last 30-40 minutes where some of the best moments materialize. Though it is hard to say any one particular scene or scenes stood out as memorable, and I do find it easy to do that with his other films. Without question I thought George Clooney was great - a subtle dressed down rendition of a 'Dad' for the actor worthy of accolades. His two daughters aged ten and seventeen were played as natural as possible by Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley respectively, with only a couple of moments of angst feeling unconvincing. Other performances were fittingly good, particularly Robert Forster as the father-in-law and a much matured Mathew Lillard in a key role. 

It seems to come with the territory with such subject matter and I don't have a problem "sitting in somebody's misery", but I'm not going to go overboard on The Descendants on this point because it wasn't an overly depressing film to me by any means. I'm glad there are writers and directors out there intent on showing the disappointment of life as much as the greatness. Perhaps I had decent sized expectations given I rate Payne pretty highly, so it is just a shame it didn't resonate as much as I wanted it too because it was presented in typically warm fashion by the director. A revisit in twelve or so months may yield different emotions - maturity does seem to have that effect.


  1. I'm interested to hear what kind of emotional reaction that you feel would have made is movie work, because your review seems to focus solely on the darker side of the story. Certainly there is 'angst' and 'sorrow' aplenty in the picture but for me, and the family it follows, this film was overall a pleasant experience.

    These people were broken long before we find them and were set to splinter further when fate intervened. Had the accident not occurred, or had it killed the mother instantly then they would all have grown up bitter and alone, George's character becoming Schmidt and his daughters heading right of the rails. Instead though they were given this emotional escrow period during which they could both come to terms with losing the lady that they love and gain each other in the process ( sounds so cheesy when you spell it out ).

    Now I'm not saying that you Didn't get he movie, or that you viewed it wrong, just wondering if my more optimistic interpretation is what allowed me to enjoy the experience a little more than you did. Hell, I even teared up multiple times, which is nigh unheard of for me. Hopefully you'll be on the bandwagon next time though man.

  2. What emotional reaction? Well, any honestly. I was never close to teary - which I have no problem admitting I can do easily. Plus I would say it was an overall pleasant experience for me too, but I also wouldn't deny it is the most somber of all his films thus far. I understood what you spelt out, but to try and explain I guess maybe I just found Matt, his kids (and his coma wife) more unlikable than I realized? I had optimism for them, particularly after they confront Speer, but overall I just couldn't garner sympathy enough to get over that hump. The hump of drawing nothing from deep down that made the story and the characters resonate they way it did when Miles leaves the wedding or goes back to Mya's apartment or seeing Schmidt tear up at the end of that film for example. I was already in deep by those stages. This family, broken before or after, healing occurring or not just didn't achieve that for me. I couldn't subscribe, relate or overly care. I just had a daughter and should probably be more susceptible to this kind of material too!

    I did find it a positive film in hindsight - or least I never found it overly "miserable", and Clooney's Matt was a good, likable person compared to say Schmidt or Jim McAllister or even Miles. In that sense I'm not sure if I'm focusing on the darkness of it (though I admit the review is not very specific and broad - I've been thinking of expanding it to explain my thoughts better) but maybe you are right or maybe I just saw it in the wrong frame of mind. I'm not really sure why it didn't connect and I'm quite disappointed that it didn't, but I'm willing to give it another shot in a while.

    A final thought; someone said to me about it and even though Matt sets the tone in his "fuck paradise" monologue at the start, it just might be a little hard to go along with the grief and unifying repair of this family - and therefore enjoyment of the film - when it is so much easier to do these things when you're rich and have all the time in the world. I don't necessarily agree with that statement, but I admit there is a shallowness to Matt and his family that is hard to overcome for some and is only really redeemed when he doesn't sign off on the sale and when they say their final goodbyes. Not everyone is going to be happy to take such a personal journey with people that rubs them the wrong way.

  3. Were they really all that rich though? Certainly the parcel of land gave them an option that most of us will never have, but in terms of action and lifestyle they never seemed to me to be a wealthy family. Their house was nice but nothing like a mansion, the story revolved around them not being able to afford a boat and yes, he took say two weeks out of the office to deal with the death of his wife but continued to work that entire time. To my mind any claims that these people were too rich to care about are pretty pathetic and speak more to a flaw in your friend than the characters, especially in this instance because there’s nothing in what they do that is extravagant or out of the ordinary for a middle-class family. If anything this if probably Payne’s most money managed movie: Imagine the cost of making all those cakes and buttons for a simple school election, dropping everything to drive in your state-of-the-art RV or the cost of a lengthy stay in the vineyards when you are going to drink that much wine; those are stories of luxury beyond our means, this one not so much.

    Their shallowness though may well be a worthwhile point but I would say that this is perhaps more to do with the films style than the people. Because Payne has such a naturalistic style there are few of those moments of contrived character work that normally provide these people with depth. They’re essentially real humans and how well do you really get to know someone after two hours in life? One-twenty minutes of one on one chat? Maybe pretty well, but this story is structured more like a party with people drifting to and from the conversation as they so will; you get snippets of their character but you never really see them bare all. I do think that a bit of a tighter focus could have helped improved the picture overall but this never really held it back for me. Unless you meant shallow as in superficial, in which case we surely saw a different movie.

    I guess what it really comes down to is that you just don’t enjoy the ukulele as much as I do.

  4. Regarding your final comment, it probably is as simple as that. It seems this film is too you what Sideways was to me six years ago. Not to say you don't like or connect with the latter as much as I do (I have no idea), but your feelings towards The Descendants echoes mine about Sideways. Rating wise too; I would only grant this 3.5 for example, but Sideways 4.5-5/5

    I certainly don't think these people are superficial. I don't totally agree with my friend's comments remember and on the rich part I think it's touch and go. Couldn't afford a boat? I was under the impression that Clooney's character had plenty of money but refused to use it. Maybe I missed something but it did feel that had a certain amount of luxury for a middle class family - land or no land. Plus the comment that his cousins "needed" the money more so suggested that the Kings were fairly well off. And in the end deciding not to sell didn't seem to really be a financial issue for him/them. I mean how many family's can enjoy a hobby of power boating if they are not to a certain degree "rich"?

    Either way, ALL of Payne's characters are shallow to some degree, but I agree the ones here were probably more "money managed". Though to be fair, Schmidt for example was a retiree and had nothing else to do, so taking off in his RV doesn't seem to fit in the equation. I don't really have a problem if the Kings were rich or shallow or superficial, that didn't or wouldn't effect how I felt about the final product anyway - my friend is different and just likes to nitpick really.

  5. Yeah, that wasn't a tirade addressed solely at you, just a general reaction to the idea of them being too rich. I think the cousins needed the money more because unlike Clooney they didn't want to work and so lived solely off the jresiduals; they are then the perfect example of the kind of character that you could address that accusation at if you were so inclined.

    I think the fact that we are able to discuss what is essentially a light dramedy to this extent is proof that though Payne's characters might be 'shallow', whatever that means, his films are deceptively dense with different ideas and emotions and for me that is what really matters.

  6. Too true! Look forward to another back and forth whenever I get the time to watch some new films again. Descendants was a last hurrah for a cinema jaunt for myself and the lady now that baby mode has well and truly taken over. Though looking forward to seeing Shame, Chronicle, My Week with Marilyn and The Rum Diary hopefully on the big screen this year...and THEN making time to write about them as well.