Critical Mass: ‘The Descendants’

It’s been a while since we’ve done one of these Critical Mass pieces where Luke and I debate movies that we disagree about. I thought that this would be a good time to take a look at an Oscar-winning film that just recently came out on Blu-ray. The Best Adapted Screenplay winner ‘The Descendants‘ is in the hot seat. Luke loved it, and I didn’t. Let’s take it from there. [Some plot spoilers to follow.]

Aaron: Now, I just want to say that I didn’t hate ‘The Descendants’, but thinking that it could have won Best Picture has me feeling ill about the state of movies in 2011. I personally thought it was a decent year for film, but if we’re talking about this serviceable yet cloying family drama winning, then I’m at a loss. I know that you gave the movie five stars when you reviewed it theatrically. Can you give me three specific examples of what ‘The Descendants’ does that other family dramas don’t do?

Luke: In giving you three examples, let me explain why I loved it so much. ‘The Descendants’ is so much more than just a family drama. It’s also about marriages and relationships, which makes this film really interesting because half of the main couple is absent for the entire film. While she’s in a coma and doesn’t have a line of dialogue in the entire film, she has a voice. This movie is just as much about their relationship as it is about the family.

Another element that I truly loved was how dark and depressing the content should have made the movie feel, but didn’t. I hate the “feel good” genre and really don’t want to slap that label on ‘The Descendants’, but 95% of the film is upbeat and positive. If you can make it through to the other side, then everything is going to be all right. Life will be a breeze. Dealing with themes of death and infidelity and wayward children and poor choices, ‘The Descendants’ shouldn’t be this happy – but it is! And it’s a wildly entertaining breath of fresh air. Had any other writer out there tried to tackle this subject matter, it would be dark and depressing. But ‘The Descendants’ isn’t, and it works!

The third element missing in most family dramas is honesty. Nothing in ‘The Descendants’ feels contrived. Nothing is over dramatized. It’s not a soap opera melodrama, although it deals with those themes. Because of how genuine it is, you walk away contemplating on what you’d do if you were in the characters’ shoes.

Aaron: It’s easy to come away with such a happy-go-lucky feeling when Matt King’s life is so privileged. He works on his own time, lives in Hawaii and inexplicably owns acres of pristine Hawaiian land. His wife is in a coma, sure, but it’s easy to shrug that off because she was a cheater. The writing and plotting here drive you away from all negative feelings deliberately, like an old woman shooing mice with a broom.

You didn’t think the ending was contrived? Really? Not even the whole “I’m not going to sign this paper and make everyone rich because I’m already set in my life and I don’t need any more money” thing? He placed this giant gesture of self-righteousness on his family just because he had some life-changing epiphany.

I did like Shailene Woodley’s performance, but it was completely overshadowed by the inclusion of her idiotic boyfriend, who was supposed to be comic relief but provided nothing comedic or relieving to the movie. Extract that kid from the movie and it’s already getting better by leaps and bounds.

Luke: I don’t look at Matt King’s life as being privileged. He’s a lawyer. He worked to get there. And the whole “living in Hawaii” thing is explained in the beginning of the film. If you live there, it’s home, not some vacation spot. The land is his inheritance, which is more than enough to keep it from being “inexplicable.” I don’t see how the wife being in a coma shrugged off anything.

I liked that he didn’t sign the papers. His cousins were all bums who wanted a piece of the action without lifting a finger for it. Matt worked for a living. He worked at keeping his family together. I walked away from ‘The Descendants’ with the moral that you have to work at things in life. You can’t just coast through life. That’s what Matt did before and it cost him his wife and daughter. By working at it, he was able to bring his daughter back, but his wife was truly lost in the end.

I, too, loved Woodley, but I also loved the rest of the supporting cast. Her idiotic boyfriend was one of the elements that kept the movie from being bogged down by depression. Plus, he gave Robert Forster’s character something fun to work with.

Compare this movie about cheating with something like ‘Closer‘ and honestly tell me that you’d rather watch ‘Closer’ over ‘The Descendants’. Same theme, completely different approach to the material. If I’m going to deal with dark content, give it to me in a way that isn’t exactly the same as everything else. Surprise me. Make me laugh as well as cry.

Do You Agree with Aaron or Luke?

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  1. JM

    Aaron is correct. ‘The Descendants’ is uninteresting down to its premise.

    I would watch ‘Closer’ 1000x over Alexander Payne’s Lifetime movie.

  2. I’m with Aaron. Like him, I didn’t HATE the Descendants, but it was a hollow and ultimately pointless movie that said nothing. Just have to add… being a soundtrack nut, I can’t remember the last time I found a film score so annoying!! 😉

    • Ian Whitcombe

      I agree. IMO, all of the Hawaiian music should have been diagetic (source) music only to illustrate the locales. Trying to use music of such a kitchy, period-specific nature to underscore the serious nature of the drama seemed ill-considered.

      I agree with Aaron at first that the film doesn’t break much new ground, though I then tend to side with Luke that the characterizations have tremendous strengh and depth. I liked the film a lot.

  3. Drew

    Luke thought ‘War Horse’ was much better than “okay.”. If I recall correctly, he gave it 4 stars. Possibly four and a half.

  4. JM

    I strenuously disagreed with myself on that movie where George Clooney did things to goats.

    It’s weird how movies of average quality can become so intensely love-hate.