Saturday, 25 February 2012

FILM REVIEW: The Descendants

To be honest, this isn't going to be a completely fair review, and I'll admit that now. Sometimes, I can dislike something before I've even seen the first five minutes, and it takes a tremendous amount to be able to turn that stubborn opinion around. I'd already decided I didn't like The Descendants going in, so on the back foot it had to win me over and prove that it was more than its twee strummy little trailer and George Clooney doing a dad run. It's not. And it didn't. PS - I deliberately chose a picture of them looking away from me so I don't have to see their faces.

Based on the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, Alexander Payne directs this humdrum family drama which manages to navigate through a lot of pain without eliciting the required the emotional response. Matt (George Clooney) is a middle aged man living in Hawaii: estranged husband and father, trustee to millions of pounds worth of land from his descendants, and the bearer of bad news. His wife (Patricia Hastie) has suffered terminal head injuries in a jet-boat accident and is not going to wake up from her coma. Now the sole guardian of his two daughters, rebellious smart arse Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and tween in training Scottie (Amara Miller), he must inform the rest of their family and friends of the sad news so they can say their goodbyes. But when he discovers that his wife was having a affair, he sets off to find the man in question. Angry but also stung by her betrayal, things become more complicated when he discovers the man has a family of his own, and also stands to gain shed loads of money from the proposed sale of his descendants' land.

The main problem here isn't the story, but the awful, awful characters. I didn't care for any of them, and that makes their catharsis/redemption/development utterly redundant. Chiefly it's the mother and wife who's dying in the hospital and the focus of all their torment that proves the biggest flaw - we don't get to see her at all (apart from the opening seconds) so our opinion of her is based on the opinions of the other characters. And because they don't like her very much, I don't like her very much. Therefore who cares whether she dies or not? Matt, apart from the odd clumsy moment, seems to have a great repertoire with his daughters, and they get along just fine - forgive me for being callous, but is losing her such a big deal? The film does little to show how integral she is as a family member, what they will miss about her, what a gap she will leave in their lives. There is zero connection here - the whole thing left me cold. The only spark of genuine love was from the grandad (Robert Forster), a cantankerous and plain speaking old man who's angry at the death of his daughter whom he adores, and his farewell scene to her in the hospital is tender and raw, and almost - almost - warmed my heart. Then you get Clooney bent over her, crying, "my love, my pain..." and my eyeballs were rolling around in their sockets. 

So let's move onto George. I have a funny relationship with him. When I'm actually watching him, I quite enjoy it (Up In The Air, O Brother Where Art Thou?) but as soon as I'm not, I instantly resort to scrunching my nose in distaste. There's something a bit phony about him and his presence. I won't deny he's a bit of a silver fox, and very competent here as a man with a involuntary mid-life crisis. But if he wins Best Actor tomorrow at the Oscars, I will go spare. There is not one singular moment where he knocks it out of the park, rattles up the gears, transcends actor-dom. He is coasting here - charming and playful. It's by no means a bad performance but he is not the best actor of the damn year. And it would be sour if he won it. Plus he did so much voice over I was lulled into a daydream where I was watching Fantastic Mr Fox (amazing).

The daughters are horrendously annoying, and again, I cared little for them and their future. Shailene Woodley being nominated for Best Supporting Actress (thankfully not at the Oscars, I may add) makes me want to choke on my drink. It's another case of an over hyped film clouding the judgement of the juries into thinking it must also contain the best performances of the year. Matthew Lillard as the home wrecker? REALLY? Though it was a nice surprise when Judy Greer popped up as his wife, only to then be spoilt by her horrible overacting at the end in the hospital.

As you can proably tell, the whole film had a river of irritation running through it - its middle class aches and pains, the way everyone judges one another before realising they're actually a lot alike and so learn to be compassionate (vomits buckets): when Alexandra's slacker "woah dude" friend Sid reveals to Matt that his father is dead - OH JUST TYPICAL! It made me want to eat my own knuckles. Twee cliches, artificial poignancy - it all felt very fake but oh so very pleased with itself.

Sure it looks beautiful, it's assured film making by Payne and it's actually engaging - I'm not calling it boring - but The Descendants has no heart, no surprise. I wasn't a huge fan of Sideways though, so I'm going to put my lack of enthusiasm down to an aversion of the genre (he did give the world Election for which I am eternally grateful). It's one redeeming feature though - who knew Hawaii consisted of so many islands! 'Scuse me whilst I get my geography book out.

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