Up until recently, I was beginning to doubt what this year had to offer in terms of movies. Granted, there has been a surprising streak of first-rate commercial releases, but one also looks for movies of substance, and quite frankly, they weren’t coming. Yet it is important to remember that within the span of two or three weeks at the end of each year, every movie looking to take home the coveted Academy Award makes its way into theaters, and this year has been no exception. Now, at last, is the time to sit back and cherish what is given to us, with a wide-open range of choices from silent comedies to psychological mysteries. The awards season has officially begun, and it was arguably started with an intimate and funny dramedy called The Descendants.
George Clooney stars in this venture as Matt King, a father and a husband who lives a life disconnected from his family until one day, his wife suffers a head injury and falls into a coma, leaving Matt to reconnect with his estranged children. The hardship of dealing with this sudden loss is heightened by Matt’s position as the sole owner of some untouched land in the Hawaiian island of Kauai, which he has inherited from his ancestors and has decided to sell due to pressure from his relatives. And on top of all this, Matt is burdened with the poorly-timed realization that his wife was cheating on him, and works at coming to terms with her secret lover.
The film works well as a whole, depicting Matt’s emotional plight with humor and wisdom. It also offers some stark moments of intimacy that work as seams, holding the film together. Yet there are two things that bother me about this movie: one, that there are sometimes leaps in character behavior that just don’t seem to make sense – witness the stupidity of the eldest daughter’s friend when we first meet him, and compare it with the bizarre chivalry he displays later on.
Secondly, for the first part of the movie, Clooney just doesn’t convince me – as he breaks down at the news of his wife’s unavoidable demise one simply cannot buy that it’s heartfelt. This may be tough of me to say, but George Clooney may not know enough pain to bring the proper depth to such a role. He is a man who is outspokenly uninterested in marriage, so why is he expected to act like he cares? These issues along with sometimes cheesy plot twists or exchanges between characters make for the occasional sense of silly and self-indulged screenwriting.
Nonetheless, one does get a strong sense that what is being said comes from a genuine place, and this helps to create a solid, complete story about family and the choices we make in life that is both touching and smart. Backed by strong direction, some startlingly inspired moments, ultimately effective work from Clooney and an excellent performance from Shailene Woodley, The Descendants comes through as perhaps not the greatest movie of the year, but a strong contender for the top ten. I think it is a fine work, and satisfying fare for anyone looking for a little depth this Oscar season.