Every critic on the planet seems to love The Descendants. The LA Film Critics Association named it the best film of the year. Roger Ebert and Rolling Stone Magazine both gave it the unbeatable four stars. It is on everyone's short list for a best picture nom, if not win. Yes, every critic loves The Descendants. And I? I think every critic is wrong. Yup. Every single one.
Peter Travers said in his review "if there's something fundamentally wrong with The Descendants, I can't find it". Well, Mr. Travers, allow me to help you. My biggest issue with the film is the screenplay. The number one rule of screenwriting is "show, don't tell". I can think of successful films that have messed with structure, had completely unlikable characters, hell even ones with minimal plot. And yet I can't think of one that worked where the audience was told everything that happened that works. And the first forty minutes of this film are no exception to the rule. Here we learn, through a very heavy handed Clooney voice over, that our protagonist Matt's wife was in a boating accident which has now landed her in a coma. He's also in charge of some important old Hawaiian land that was passed down to him from his descendants (see what they did there?) and is in the final stages of negotiations with his family to decide what to do with it. I could have learned all of this in two scenes. The first, by actually seeing his wife's boating accident and the second by seeing a meeting of the family where they spoke rather than be silenced by the all knowing voice over. Instead we see Matt wander from scene to scene, not really talking to people even when he is. Perhaps isolation of his character is part of the point, but I never truly find him less isolated (no arc!) so I'm not sure if that was a brilliant direction to go in. It seems like Alexander Payne worried that the audience would be confused as to the world of the story so he felt it necessary to beat them over the head with it. Yeah, we got it. Can we move on?
The film finally gets a semblance of purpose when Matt learns that his wife had been cheating on him and sets out to find Brian Speer, the other man. This could have been interesting. Instead, Matt half lucks into finding Brian and the actual confrontation is so lackluster and so devoid of any kind of resolution or even meaning that I find myself wondering why they even bothered. Then there is the land. What Matt will do with it is so glaringly obvious that its a total snooze to watch him come to the decision we all know he will. It's an interesting concept, to be sure, but short of one visit to the land itself (one of the film's better scenes) it is this strange itch you can't scratch out of the movie. It's connected to every storyline but without a real sense of purpose. The fact that it has to play in to the cheating storyline is a little too kismet and just feels like another reason to steer Matt into his final decision. And the lack of really getting to know the relatives who were tearing him in different directions takes us completely out of being able to understand his plight.
If the screenplay wasn't problematic enough, I find the casting of this film to be pretty awful. A friend of mine remarked that Geroge Clooney, when not playing a sexy womanizer much like George Clooney himself, is a man's actor. I don't disagree with this. I didn't love Clooney in this film. While I thought he had two fine scenes (I'd show his goodbye to his wife as a clip at the Oscars, if I were them), his stoicism makes it difficult to believe he is feeling anything. This makes him hard to believe. Perhaps male critics identify with this lack of emoting, but I find it almost impossible to connect with. Now, normally I love me some Clooney. But he never became Matt. He was just him in a Hawiian shirt.
Of the other major roles, Amara Miller didn't do what any other child actor her age would. Nick Krause was annoying as Sid (with the possible exception of the one scene where he told Matt about his mom) and I never understood why he was around and why no one told him to shut up. I actually thought Shailene Woodley was decent as the eldest daughter, but she couldn't make up for the rest of the casting mistakes. In much smaller roles, comic actors Judy Greer and Matthew Lilard seemed miscast as the Speers and their limited screen time seemed a waste. I think if you added up all the times someone said "Brain Speer" in this film, it would equal more time than Lilard was shown. Finally, all the local small parts couldn't act their way out of a paper bag which really takes you out of the (limited) world of the story.
A lot of critics have latched on to many of these smaller characters and written about them as though they were much more important than they are. I think a lot of people are viewing this film as an Away We Gosort of film, where out characters meet different people who affect them along the way. This IS NOT one of those films. Matt's in laws? Should be vital to the story. But they aren't. You may find them to be interesting, critics, but it doesn't change the fact that we saw them in two brief scenes. The "cousins" should be the biggest source of conflict in the film but we don't really know any of them. Same of the Speers. They don't affect Matt, he doesn't affect them and the audience is left wondering why they even bothered.
I get why critics want to like this film. The general concept does sound appealing if you like small quiet interpersonal films (as I do). Hawaii is a really fun location. And Clooney is playing a dad, which is different for him. But I'm pretty certain they were pumping something serious through the vents at all of the critics' screenings, because I do not get it. The follow through, in every way, was awful. With Payne's last critical darling Sideways I gave it the benefit of the doubt that I may come to like it better as I age, as I did The Graduate. This will not be the case for The Descendants. It's not about identifying with the character. It's about it being a clunky awkward film. A clunky aw awkward film that will win a ton of awards. Yeah. I give up.