In Review: The Descendants

By Maryann O’Connor

What makes a film worthy of an Oscar nomination? That is the question on most people’s lips (their chapped lips) at this time of year. The Descendants, a film written and directed by Alexander Payne, has been put forward for this honour.

The Descendants in question are George Clooney’s character, Matt King and his family who have inherited a large chunk of paradise from their Hawaiian Princess ancestor but their world and life-weariness is preventing them from seeing the value of their inheritance as anything other than large sacks of dollar bills. We see Matt struggle with this as well as the problems with his wife Elizabeth and his own descendants, his two daughters Alex and Scottie. His wife had the misfortune to get herself in a boating accident so workaholic father Matt has to learn how to deal with his daughters and his large band of cousins while facing the truth about his life.

So what does make a film worth of an Oscar Nomination? Best picture might suggest a good all-rounder with some real moments of insight or truth, a great cast, good cinematography, brilliant screenplay and direction. Sadly, I don’t know if it meets the mark on any of these things.

George Clooney is good, yes and his immediate supporting cast is good enough. I was interested to see what Matthew Lillard, who plays Brian Speer, would be like now he’s old enough to escape his permanent teenaged roles. Cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges) and father in law Scott Thorson (Robert Forster) provide the most interesting characters for Matt to rally against or tolerate, especially Scott: interactions between these two provide the most intense and relatable moments of the film. George bonds well enough with his onscreen daughters, providing some touching scenes. Shailene Woodley, who plays Matt’s eldest and wayward daughter Alex was easy to watch and will probably be in a few more things in time to come. It will be no surprise to you that Hawaii is beautiful as well and seems an inappropriate setting for this tale of woe but as George tells us at the beginning, just because you live in paradise doesn’t mean your life is paradise.

The overall story is engaging and makes you wish that things will eventually turn out well for Matt King and his family. However, the success of the film hinges itself on the scenes and story concerning his wife and her bad decisions. It is a difficult issue to tackle: how to confront someone for hurting you when they can’t answer back, how to care about insensitive family members and how to carry on when you know your life is a little bit of a lie and most definitely a mess.

The film doesn’t so much tackle these sensitive issues as run at them with arms flailing: when we should have been sympathising with the onscreen characters, on too many occasions the only reaction really provoked was a bit of embarrassment. Real life is awkward and it’s true that we don’t always know how to deal with the emotional stuff but overall this was a little too clunky to really portray that properly. Good but not great.

Maryann has awarded The Descendants three Torches of Truth

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