22 January 2012
In this age of sequels, prequels, triquels, remakes, rehashes, reimaginings … (you get the idea), we should cherish a film like The Descendants. OK, it was based on a novel, so it’s not strictly speaking ‘original’, but it has its own voice, a somewhat consistent style and it doesn’t rely on any given gimmick (3D, a non-actor leading (wo)man, shot in realer-than-real HD etc). Because of this and its other intangibles (A-list actor, critically acclaimed director-screenwriter), The Descendants is considered one of the leading ‘prestige’ releases of 2011 (2012 if you’re in the UK). The problem, though, is that it is as safe, daring and interesting as the autobot testicles from Transformers 2.
But I digress.
Before going on a diatribe about why The Descendants should have been great, but is in fact just mediocre (which is, in my opinion, a bigger cinematic crime than letting Mariah Carey act in front of the camera), it is only fair to highlight some of the things that it does really well.
George Clooney: Clooney has always been very good at embarrassing himself in front of camera by partaking in very un-A-list-like behaviour. He is not afraid to look unglamorous without excessive make-up or costume design. The scene where he runs the streets of perfect suburbia in his crocs is pure comic gold. Same for the atrocious shirts that he dons throughout the film. He maintains the balance of not taking himself too seriously (which is what you really expect from an actor-icon-celebrity) and taking his job seriously really well. That is why he is still very much in the spotlight despite not starring in a massive blockbuster in his career. He even starred in one of the most critically derided movies of all time (remember the Bat-nipples?). He never blew anyone’s mind by his acting, but he never sucked either. He was always dependable. He was always Clooney. He was always, for want of a better word, good. And he is good here too. Perhaps not on par with his turn in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (my favourite Clooney), but he more than ably carries the film on his shoulders. It is down to his talents that we are able to watch a clueless, aimless, boring man meandering his way through a non-plot.
Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller: As the two supposedly precocious girls, they steal the show. Especially Woodley as the older teenage daughter. Her nuanced performance is what barely saves a character so flawed in its execution that it makes my brain hurt that this will probably win the adapted screenplay statuette in February. Miller is given far less material (she pretty much disappears after the first 3 minutes), but her turn elicits so much empathy from the audience, her absence is probably what really derails the film. All in all, these two girls have a bright future ahead of them. In other words, great casting job (mostly).
It is butt-numbingly blah. It lacks testosterone and oestrogen. This is the vegan option in a burger joint that somehow has a vegan option. I know it may be pedantic, but what in the name of succubus happened to the voiceover that gave us all we ever had to know about the characters: their backstories, their medical histories … you name it, we knew it. So, why bother watching it if nothing is left to be discovered? People in Liverpool should claim their refund for that alone. Yes, I’m being very scrupulous and snobbish in my film-school-don’t-show-tell mantra. But it is true for every enduring film out there. You know I’m right.
The film has 3 plots that are in no way related to each other. The fact that Clooney is meeting point for all of these feels like an afterthought. Let’s take these one at a time (because I don’t have the writing skill to summarise them in a single glorious paragraph):
Clooney and the girls: Clooney’s rich-as-fuck-but-still-working-9-to-5 attorney has to reconnect with his daughters after his wife’s coma. Great story, I really want to watch that. But can you please stretch this out to more than a reel? When we start we can clearly see the tensions and the lack of chemistry between the characters (and kudos for acting here), but it doesn’t lead anywhere. It just lingers on from one uninspiring scene to the next, relying solely on the one-liners and a couple of chuckle-inducing scenes here and there. But where’s the meat, Payne?
Clooney’s land: Another storyline that is just thrown in there where Clooney and his extended family will sell their priceless piece of land to a developer and hence save the trust fund from going bust in 7 years. 7 YEARS?! Is that the timelock that we need to worry about? They mention the 7-year-deadline so many times I began to wonder whether the actors were secretly trying to tell the director how this storyline, well, sucks. What happens in the end? Nothing. The scene where we are expecting some dramatic outcome (confrontation! decision time!) just ends in the middle of a sentence.
Clooney’s revenge: Maybe this is giving away too much, but Clooney finds out that his wife was cheating on her. Encouraged by his older daughter he decides to hunt the guy down … and finds out who he is in 5 minutes. Just shoot me now … He then confronts him in a scene that is definitely the highlight of the film. Simply because Clooney leans and ‘accidentally’ kisses his nemesis’s wife (Judy Greer is brilliant as always). That’s it. And these are all connected by a coincidence that is borderline pathetic: his wife’s lover happens to be on vacation in the same island as the land that they’re trying to sell. And why don’t we just go for a road trip where we can unite and bond and be a happy family?
Maybe I’m being too harsh. This is not Howard the Duck, but I’m not to blame for expecting something more from the man who gave us Sideways - a film that single-handedly keeps the California winemaking industry afloat (OK, maybe not). But I don’t see any Descendants Hawaii tours any time soon. You know why? Because this film doesn’t make me want to give a shit. It is not a bad film but it neither offends nor inspires me. It is a mediocre film. And (allow me to paraphrase myself here) a mediocre film will leave a more bitter taste in your mouth than a terrible film. A terrible film will be forgotten the moment you step outside the cinema. A mediocre film and its disappointment will linger on for a very long time.