“I loved it. It’s set in Hawaii.”
This is not exactly an irresistible come-on, at least for me. I subscribe to Afar and Nat Geo Traveller; hell, I can google or spotify pictures and music from Hawaii galore any time I want. I’ve never really even wanted to go all that much. I lived on Key West for 2 years. I know it’s not the same, but I’ve done the tropics to at least some degree.
The Descendants, however, is getting an absolute ton of critic love, despite having about as much depth as Don Ho’s music. It starts with lengthy voice-over; long ago, when I interviewed director Philip Kaufman for a Criterion disc, he said that he felt voice-over had a deadening effect on a movie, and indeed, it was one of the things that Ridley Scott hated most about the studio edit on Blade Runner. And yet, here we have George Clooney droning on in that sometimes character-less monotone of his, about how terrible it is to live in Hawaii, over a crass montage of those Down and Out in Oahu – crass because Clooney’s character is an exemplar of First World Problems, e.g., “I have to wear these stupid Hawaiian shirts because everyone else does, when you know what I really want to do is rock me some Brooks Brothers.”
It’s not a bad movie. The time passes amiably enough, because Clooney is eminently watchable. But the accolades for his performance feel overly gushy. There’s none of the wild-eyed brio that the Coens harnessed so beautifully in O Brother, Where Art Thou, nor the world-weary tenacity of Syriana or Michael Clayton. Clooney’s a solid, old-school Hollywood actor who plays variations of himself; it makes him a great movie star, so let’s not lose our minds and say that he’s doing something amazing when he’s just doing what he gets paid very well to do.
Special notice is owed Shallene Woodley; anyone who’s survived raising a fiery adolescent will initially shiver in recognition. Of course, there’s also some solace, since, despite starting off as a classically (I won’t say stereotypically) angry teen, the kid turns out to have a decent sense of self as well as fairly good sense. Clooney always strikes me as a generous actor; despite his godlike charisma, or perhaps because of it, he has a way of making the screen feel balanced. He and Woodley play off each other beautifully. There are also some very nice bits with Beau Bridges, who seems to have settled into older, fatter brother mode with a pleasant joviality, and who looks not just at home in technicolor palm tree-festooned attire, but as if he doesn’t have anything else in his closet.
Director and co-screenwriter Alexander Payne is good, and his other movies, including Election and Sideways, provide a nice, breezy stage on which people on the verge of some sort of crisis fumble their way through it. But there’s little resonance here, possibly because the genuine tragedy of a comatose wife – admittedly, not very interesting to watch – is eclipsed by things that should be smaller, including real estate deals, infidelity, and a 10-year-old who text harasses another kid (something about pubic hair). The script is so much vapor, occasionally producing a chuckle, wringing out an easy tear in the goodbye scene, but overall the whole thing feels rote in a way that Miramax in particular specializes.
There is one remarkable scene, less than a minute long, and it belongs to Woodley: an underwater shot in which she deals with her impending loss. (Props to Payne for coming up with an ingenious shot.) And there’s a particularly fine performance from Robert Forster, veteran of about a million things and one of those “that’s that guy…who…” (and then you can never remember where you’ve him, you just know you have) actors. As a hard man faced with the unthinkable, he shows the nuance that can be achieved from working solely in iron.
But honestly, gang, you really can wait for the DVD and even then I’d opt to watch Melancholia again instead. And of course, with certain Oscar noms, at least for Clooney, screenplay, and Payne, and a good shot for Woodley, you’ll see enough clips to get the gist of it.