Monday, March 5, 2012

Caitlins Review of The Descendants

Ice Cream Headache
a review by Caitlin Murphy

If ever you are watching a film, and a character gazes out his airplane window and claims, in voice over narration, that it makes sense he lives in Hawaii because his family is like an archipelago – you are probably not in very good cinematic hands.

Thus the world of The Descendants, a film I saw late in its run, so admittedly hungover from the hype of awards season.  That said, it’s still a surprisingly  unsatisfying film that proves that when you bite off much more than you can chew, swallowing becomes difficult. 

Just about every film that Alexander Payne has made (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways) has been based on a novel and The Descendants is no exception.  Payne  co-wrote the screenplay with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’ book of the same name.  In the film, George Clooney plays (well, plays is a bit of an exaggeration) Matt King, a successful lawyer living in Hawaii; with his wife in a coma after a boating accident, he is struggling to raise two daughters he’s never really known.  When Matt learns that his wife won’t survive, he must bear the news to friends and family, and recruits his away-at-college daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) to help.  From this disgruntled daughter though, Matt soon discovers that his wife had been cheating on him before the accident and planning on asking for a divorce – an idea that had not been far from his own mind. 

Experiencing the typical male response to an affair, Matt, of course, desperately wants to find out ‘who this guy is’, which becomes the film’s new direction.  When Alexandra agrees to help him track down the other man, (and she insists on bringing along her stoner side-kick for the ride), we’re off on some spirited island hopping that throws the film into odd caper territory.  Suddenly we’re ducking behind bushes, devising schemes, and killing time tanning until the next plot development.

George Clooney comes with a lot of baggage, making him much more of a screen presence than an actor, and depending on the film, that can be a big problem.   In The Descendants, you can’t help but feel that the guy is just too cool to have ancestors; too stylish to be slumming it in a hospital; too self-assured to be thrown, and something about Clooney’s delivery suggests that he agrees.  And his persona points to a larger problem with the film, and sometimes more generally with male-driven stories:  often, men, shedding more layers than they’re used to or comfortable with, believe they must have arrived at something raw, authentic and true, when really they’ve got a few more layers to go.  What you get then is men exposed as vulnerable, but not really vulnerable, frightened of life but not really frightened, finding it difficult to be a single father, but not really difficult.  Essentially, the film smugly believes its hit gravitas, when gravitas is actually a few more floors down.

With Matt’s wife in a coma, his mother-in-law suffering from alzheimers, his female cousins few and speechless, the film started quickly to feel like No country for old women, conveniently silencing grown adults, to emphasize the power of the teenager.  But the fact that his daughter actually feels guilty for revealing her mother’s affair to him, and thus obliged to help her father find this other man, is rather preposterous, a supreme plot contrivance that betrays the reality of this woman’s frustration and grief.   Because Alexandra also spends nearly the entire film in modelling various bikinis (and yes, I understand we’re in Hawaii), aiding and abetting ladies man George Clooney created a creepy quotient difficult to gauge or articulate. 

As in many novel adaptations, the story is told, the characters revealed in big brush-strokes.  Matt is the busy lawyer, never-there-for-you dad, Alexandra is the rebelling, getting caught drinking at expensive private school ungrateful daughter,  Scottie is the precocious, inappropriate pre-teen with the boy’s name, the father-in-law is an asshole, cartoonish in his depiction, spewing hateful nonsense designed solely to fuel conflict.  Characters traits are convenient:  useful, not truthful.  And it seemed that whenever nuance or depth did enter the picture, the scene would usually grind to a halt as though the screenwriters really couldn’t figure out how to go there, sadly, the only interesting place on the horizon. 

So, the world of The Descendants is essentially one of convenience.  Characters are treated like puppets, devices for the writers to see scenes they wanted to see, make jokes they wanted to make.  The dialogue is very self-conscious, clever exchanges that the screenwriters enjoyed, not real conversations anyone would be having.  And as in a lot of comedic films these days, everyone’s already in on the jokes and tongues are crazy glued to the insides of cheeks, creating characters that are too knowing to have anything to learn.  The tone of the film thus actively works against its own theme.

In the end, there’s no real epiphany about how very misguided Matt’s efforts have been, there’s no real growth for the man.  Essentially, there’s no real work that has to happen, because, well, frankly cause George Clooney shouldn’t have to do much work.  He’s George Clooney for god’s sake.  And the conceit that – wonder of wonders – a grown man can actually have something to learn from young women – winds up feeling forced, undeveloped and vaguely insulting. 

The closing image of the film, Matt and his daughters (after their mother has died) oh, so casually settling in together on the couch, gathered under the quilt from their mother’s hospital bed, to watch some documentary narrated by Morgan Freeman was the sad kicker for me.  The image seemed to confirm not only how little we expect of men, but how that’s okay.  And once the trio started passing the ice cream bowls around, sampling each other’s flavours, in a lingering long take that begged for the credits to roll, things got turned up to 11, when 10 was already piercingly loud.

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