In my rush to see and discuss as many films as possible before the end of 2011, I keep trying—and failing—to write short reviews. But, for once, I feel I can be succinct about The Descendants, the new George Clooney vehicle directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways).
I hated it. I really, really fucking hated it.
Is that enough? Do you need more?
Fine, but I warn you, I don't remember the last time a movie made me as irrationally angry as The Descendants made me. Some movies are bad because they are badly made, while others—like this one—are bad the way people are bad: they are bad because their souls are faulty. They are bad because they are empty, or shallow, or smug, or disingenuous, or downright evil in intent or effect. The Descendants is not evil, but it's all the other adjectives and more: a faux-indy, annoyingly "quirky," middle-aged White guy angst-fest of the most manipulative and masturbatory kind. It thinks it's funny when it's not. It thinks it's emotionally moving when, at best, it's just cheaply sentimental. Worst of all, it thinks it's saying something—about marriage, parenting, and grief—when I've seen cat food commercials with more genuine insight and human understanding.
Critics who have praised this movie, and voters who have nominated it for awards: could you kindly pass me a bowl of whatever the fuck it is that you're smoking?
Sigh. In The Descendants, Clooney plays Matt King, a trust-fund millionaire whose family are the last descendants of a Hawaiian princess, and collectively own the largest undeveloped plot of land on the islands, which they are preparing to sell for half a billion dollars. Clooney is the trustee of the land—the final decision maker—but he himself lives in relative modesty off the income of his law firm, because he's a good guy...or something. Payne (who co-wrote the screenplay with Nat Faxon & Jim Dash) seems to know that most of us will be predisposed to hate this smug, privileged bastard, and so the movie opens with 20 minutes of ridiculous voice-over dialogue in which Clooney's character assures us that even Hawaiian-dwelling millionaires have problems:
MATT (V.O.): My friends on the mainland think just because I live in Hawaii, I live in paradise. Like a permanent vacation: we’re all just out here drinking mai-tais, shaking our hips, and catching waves. Are they nuts? How can they possibly think our families are less screwed up, our heart attacks and cancers less fatal, our grief less devastating? Hell, I haven’t been on a surfboard in fifteen years.
(Wow, sorry about that surfboard thing: that must be rough. But, may I point out that—while your cancers may in fact be no less fatal—your gag reflex is obviously much less sensitive.)
Matt's biggest problem is that his wife Elizabeth (a believably catatonic Patricia Hastie) is dying, having suffered a devastating head injury in a boating accident. (We know this because both Clooney's unnecessary voice-over and several unnecessary characters shovel expository bullshit at us like Hercules cleaning out the Augean stables.) Matt wants his wife to wake up because he's "ready to be a real husband." (What was he before? We never learn, because the film doesn't bother to really examine the marriage at the heart of this story.) He is also struggling with his two children, 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley) and 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), because he is, after all, the "back-up parent, the understudy," and now must be a real father. (What kind of father was he before? Again, we have no idea, and neither does the movie.) "My family seems like an archipelago," Matt says, as though it means something. "We are part of the same group, but we are still islands – separate and alone. And we’re slowly drifting apart." Really, an archipelago? Not an isthmus or an atoll? How about a shallow pond?
Apparently, Matt's idea of being a good husband and father is to leave his wife's bedside and drag his children—along with Alex's brain-dead boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause)—all over the Hawaiian Islands in madcap, stalkery pursuit of Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), the man he discovers his wife was sleeping with. It's at the point that the movie stops being about Elizabeth, or death, or parenting, or marriage, or anything else, and becomes Little Miss Sunshine on a beach.
I would love to hear someone involved in the film explain to me what the hell they think this story is about. It's not about the difficulties of parenting: the children—though they are introduced to us as rebellious—are perfectly well-behaved and delightful, through no intervention on the father's part. It's not about marriage: Matt doesn't come to any realization about his wife, or any discovery about himself, or any insight about his screwed-up relationship with this dying woman. It's not about death, since—apart from a couple of cheaply manipulative montage hospital scenes in which the children say goodbye—we never really see the characters discuss their grief, let alone deal with it.
Here's a small but telling example of why this film made me so nauseated and angry: one of the subplots of the film is that Scottie, the youngest daughter, doesn't know her mother is dying. We expect—as we have every right to expect—that eventually Clooney's character will have to step up to the plate, be a fucking father, and break this news to his little girl. Towards the end of the movie, however, Clooney's character has a doctor we've never seen before deliver this blow, in a silent, maudlin montage. That's one small moment, but it's all too typical of The Descendants, a film that promises an exploration of family dynamics and then completely, pathetically passes the buck. It's a well-made, well-acted, well-directed piece of absolute bullshit that pretends to have something to say about pain, loss, and the terrible responsibilities of parenting, but is either too lazy or too scared to even approach those worthy subjects.
For a deeper, more profound, more insightful and authentic exploration of family dynamics in this same paradisiacal setting, may I suggest the Hawaiian vacation episodes of The Brady Bunch? If you prefer badly written platitudes, phony melodrama, and stale emotions delivered with an annoyingly "quirky" sensibility—but without the slightest trace of genuine feeling—The Descendants is for you.