The Descendants review (Blu-ray)

The Descendants rode high on a veritable tsunami of critical acclaim upon its release, with critics are calling it "the performance of Clooney’s career". I wish I could have liked it more. Critical acclaim is one thing, but acclaim for a film that left you cold is hard to stomach. Did I miss something? Did we all see the same film? Am I human?

Despite my tough, grisly exterior, I’m not in fact naturally adversative. Certainly I regard hype with a wary eye, and can be sceptical about the mechanisms of Hollywood and the snowballing spin that can sometimes see a film lauded grossly out of proportion; but I don’t set out to stand on the opposite side of the fence just for the sake of it. Just as bad as people who really like big budget mainstream movies (if indeed that is such a despicable thing) are those that only ever swim against the tide: the art-house aficionados who refuse to watch something that’s screening at Vue; the ones who only like the "early work" of an actor who’s since "sold out" (or, in layman’s terms, "become successful"); the ones that will proclaim something a "terrible film", just because the majority liked it. Clearly, with the amount of praise The Descendants received, and with my own experience at ground level of other people’s almost unanimous enjoyment, the film must have quality. But I found it tedious and turgid.

Clooney plays Matt King, an established "land baron" of Hawaii whose wife is in a coma after a jet-skiing accident. These two plot lines are tapering to their respective endings; the selling off of the family’s massive land estate on one of the islands, and the inevitable switching off of the life support machine. Early in the film it comes to light that Elizabeth was not quite the faultless wife she made out to be, and Matt’s struggle to come to terms with this, while keeping up a stoic face in front of grieving friends and family (some of whom attack him for his below par performance as a husband), causes him to reassess both himself and his financial situation, and to forge a bond with his daughters, for whom he has only ever seen himself as "the back-up parent".

It has some interesting aspects, and several moments of brilliantly acerbic comedy. The mute presence of the moribund Elizabeth casts an intriguing shadow over people’s behaviour and opinions: respect for the dead (or the soon-to-die) is set in counterbalance with people’s desire to speak their mind. That Elizabeth’s death is only a matter of time sets the film in an intriguing moral no-man’s land, through which her family must negotiate a path between what is right for them and what is right by her. Credit must go to young Miller, who gives a spirited performance as younger daughter Scottie – hilarious and heartbreaking at once.

The Descendants is directed by Alexander "About Schmidt" Payne (I wasn’t crazy about that one either) and adapted from a novel of the same name. The script, apart from the rare one liners of wit, seemed dull at best and lazy at worst – the opening monologue, running through Matt’s thoughts, was an almost unforgivably bland and unimaginative as a  form of exposition.

I’ll say it again – given the awards, the acclaim, and more importantly, the reactions of other viewers, this film must have something to offer. But it did nothing for me.

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Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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