The Reel Deal


A Reel Deal Film Review

Film Insight by Tyler Malone

November 2011

Reel Rating: 3 out of 5


I was surprised at how disappointed I was with The Descendants. Perhaps I’ll look back one day and think I was foolish for not appreciating this film, perhaps at some point I’ll agree with the majority of the major critics out there who are raving about how absolutely brilliant this film is, but for now I’m quite content in calling it a disappointment.

Sure, George Clooney is brilliant as a father trying to reconnect with his daughters after his wife falls into a coma. He knows just what to do in every scene to elicit the right amount of comedy and pathos (to the point that one wishes director Alexander Payne had the same tightrope walking abilities). Clooney probably deserves an acting nomination from the Academy come January, but his performance deserves a better movie, one that acts as the balancing pole to Clooney’s virtuoso man on wire performance. Instead, from moment one, we get mediocrity in writing, in directing, and in much of the acting (Clooney aside). It rises above mediocrity to the level of decent as it moves into the second half, and leaves behind its painfully awkward, utterly pointless and completely cliche voice over. 90% of what is said in the voice over is superfluous and would have been obvious or sooner-or-later explained by the goings-on in the movie, the other 10% is cheesy pseudo-poetic garbage (i.e. the archipelago metaphor). Admittedly, there is a germ of an interesting idea here–the idea of a man having to juggle reconnecting with his children, dealing with a wife in a coma, discovering her infidelity and making a huge decision as the trustee of his family’s ancestral land is definitely the premise for no other movie I can think of. The concept is new, or at least a fresh take on the old Victorian novel with its cuckolding and its dilapidated aristocracy. And, indeed, in addition to a nice little story idea, there are a handful of stunningly perfect scenes here, but as many moments that it has that shine, there are just as many that fall far short of greatness.

Many of these scenes that are less than extraordinary include an overuse of the unfunny Sid character, a boy friend of one of the daughters. In my opinion, he should have been excised from the film entirely. What does he add? Also, besides the idiotic misuse of voice over–voice overs during which I awkwardly giggled as a way to get through them–it was likewise painful to see the use of a map and a dotted line on screen when the characters traveled from one island of Hawaii to another. I couldn’t help but think of a scene from the new Muppet movie The Muppets, which came out today and which I have yet to see. But there’s a scene in the trailer: the Muppets are on a roadtrip picking each other up to get the gang back together and at one point Fozzy suggests, “We should travel by map,” and it cuts to a map, an arrow shows their travel, and they’re magically there. The Muppets are mocking the Hollywood cliche that The Descendants uses in absolute seriousness. Sure, it’s a minor thing, and there are plenty of great movies that use this conceit, but it highlights one of my major problems with the film–namely that Alexander Payne seems inept in an ability to use things to his and the movie’s benefit.

A. O. Scott in the New York Times, one of the many film critics in love with this movie, wrote: “To call The Descendants perfect would be a kind of insult, a betrayal of its commitment to, and celebration of, human imperfection. Its flaws are impossible to distinguish from its pleasures.” The second sentence in this quote perfectly identifies what I look for in a film. My favorite films I admit for the most part are not perfect in what would be deemed the standard definition of the word, but are perfect in the sense that they allow their imperfections to be integral parts of the whole. For example, P. T. Anderson’s Magnolia, my favorite film, has its imperfections, I can admit, but to correct them would be to make the movie worse as a whole. This is not so with The Descendants. If one were to get rid of the appalling voice over, or to cast better actors in some of the supporting rolls, or to cut out the supposed “comic relief character” of Sid (who didn’t make me laugh once, but constantly made me roll my eyes), any one of these things would make the film better as a whole. Or, hell, maybe make any of the supporting cast not a one-dimensional stock character, that would probably help the film rather than hurt it.

So why is everyone so enamored with The Descendants? I can’t explain it, because I don’t get it. I’ll admit, it’s not a terrible movie, hence the three out of five stars, but does it really deserve the innumerable perfect scores its received from otherwise sane critics?

That said, though it’s no perfect film, not by a mile, I still think it is a decent picture, with moments of greatness . It’s completely watchable, and generally enjoyable, but is so transparent in its want to be liked that it becomes more than slightly annoying. It knows it is Oscar-bait, and is relentless in its attempts to win everyone in the audience over, which alienated me entirely. That said, I won’t not recommend it for three reasons. The first is that even after all the negatives I’ve said about it, my score says it all, a three out of a five in my ratings is still a movie that I would consider worth watching (if not one to write home about). The second is that Clooney’s performance is phenomenal, and may end up being award-winning come January and February. The third is that if my fellow film critics are any indication, there will be plenty of you out there who will go gaga for this movie. But me, I’ll just remember the disappointments in The Descendants, and wish it had been a better film, one that deserved the phenomenal Clooney performance it showcased.

The Descendants is a film directed by Alexander Payne, written by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, and based upon the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. It stars George Clooney, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller. A land baron tries to re-connect with his two daughters after his wife suffers a boating accident.


Official Site: The Descendants

IMDb: The Descendants

Written by Tyler Malone

Photography Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Design by Jillian Mercado


Press Photo from The Descendants, Photography Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

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