Movie Monday: The Descendants

If George Clooney is in it, I’ll watch it. He’s like Harrison Ford. He may frequently play himself, but he tends to be fun to watch. He’s not always in the best movies, but when he’s good, he’s very good. He got an Oscar Nomination for The Descendants so I decided to check it out.

In The Descendants, Matt King (George Clooney) has a wife who was in an accident. Now she’s in a coma and not really expected to come out of it. Matt has been a real estate lawyer all of his life and not spent much time with his two daughters who are seventeen and ten. So he’s juggling his kids who he doesn’t actually know very well with a dying wife and a gigantic real estate deal that means everything to his extended family. Oh and to top it all off, it turns out his wife was cheating on him. I would normally consider this a spoiler but since it’s the focus of just about every trailer I saw for the movie, I think the cat’s out of the bag on that one.

The movie was shot entirely in Hawaii. Early on, Clooney says something about how his friends on the mainland think he lives in paradise and then he goes on to explain how it’s just like anywhere else. While it’s true that his story is the sort that could happen anywhere, the filmmaking does little to dissuade you from the fact that Hawaii is a very beautiful place. In fact there are some of the most beautiful shots I’ve ever seen of Hawaii in The Descendants.

There’s a trick to storytelling where you get the audience to care about the characters. There’s no one thing that works to do this. If your character is nice to other people or animals, that can help. If it’s a movie, sometimes all you need is the right actor. George Clooney is one of those actors. Even when he played Seth Gecko in From Dusk Til Dawn we were with him because he has that charm and he was kind of a bad ass. In the Descendants George Clooney plays the Anti-Clooney. He has no charisma and almost no charm. He manages to do something I haven’t seen him do since he played Batman; He made me not care about his character.

As Matt King and his family go around basically dealing with and cleaning up the mess his wife made of their marriage and their lives, it just didn’t matter too much to me what happened because at the end of the day, his character was still going to be fabulously wealthy and still going to have his daughters. The rest of it just didn’t matter.

This movie also has not one but two red flags for me. One is voice-over narration. I hate narration on a level that’s probably not appropriate. Sometimes it’s necessary. Sometimes it’s even good. But  most often it’s because the filmmaker is unsure how to get information across through storytelling so he just puts the exposition in the narration. It’s lazy and often insulting to the audience. The other red flag is the movie was filmed in a beautiful spot. If it’s not a big action movie, then basically the actors are getting paid to hang out in Hawaii or wherever while they film the movie. And if an actor is unsure of a script, the fact that they have to spend a month or two in the islands can usually make that decision a little easier. It also frequently results in a bad movie.

It probably sounds like I hated the movie. That’s not true. It was enjoyable enough. Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller are great as Matt King’s daughters. They’re fun to watch and feel like sisters. Nick Krause somehow channels a teenage Keanu Reeves for comedic effect as the older daughter’s boyfriend, Sid. There are also a couple of wonderful scenes with Robert Forster. So yeah, if you’ve got nothing better to do and you want to watch a movie, The Descendants isn’t a bad choice if you’ve never seen it before. But the first question I always ask myself after I finish watching a movie is if I’ll ever watch it again and when I did that with The Descendants, the answer was ‘No.’

– Jack Cameron