George Clooney once again proves Oscar worthy
February 3, 2012
After the Academy Award nominations were announced last month, it dawned on me that I had only seen one of the movies up for best picture. To begin my last-minute scramble to watch as many of these movies as possible before the big show, I decided on what is arguably the current Oscar front-runner– the George Clooney vehicle, “The Descendants.”
The plot of “The Descendants” is ripe with the kind of drama traditionally favored during award season. At its core the movie is about a dysfunctional family struggling with grief and resentment over the soon-to-be death of one of its members. Along the way, characters are forced to make tough decisions and face powerful emotions. But at the macro level, the movie delves into the subject of greed-specifically the connection between money and happiness, and the difference between money and wealth.
As a finished product, “The Descendants” is somewhat of a mess. The emotion of the plot is heartfelt and genuine, thanks largely to exemplary performances by a talented cast; but, there is a haphazardness to the pacing that I found unsettling. The tone of the movie jumps between deep sorrow and burning rage at moment’s notice. And although the characters reach a cathartic peace by the conclusion, audiences may not be so lucky. I left the theater in what I can only describe as a state of grief.
The movie opens with a cryptic shot of a woman cruising around on a speedboat. From here it cuts to a hospital room where we are introduced to Matt King, played by Clooney, and his comatose wife, Elizabeth. As revealed through a Clooney voice-over, Elizabeth was injured in a boating accident. What sympathy the situation awards Matt is quickly squandered when he confesses to being an inattentive husband and deadbeat dad.
“I was the backup parent,” he admits about his two daughters. “The understudy.”
His youngest daughter is Scottie, played by newcomer Amara Miller. She is a sassy thing, unafraid of flipping off adults and open to swearing in front of her father. This is probably to be blamed on Alexandra, Matt’s eldest daughter played by Shailene Woodley of “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” fame. She is first introduced at an upscale reform school, where she has been sent because of problems with drugs and alcohol. Alexandra has the brain of Lisa Simpson, but the bad habits of Bart. In matters of life and emotion, Alexandra’s maturity equals- -if not surpasses—that of her father.
The first act of “The Descendants” is heartwrenching. Scenes of the two daughters coming to terms with their mother’s fate are almost too hard to watch. I found myself wincing through much of it, dreading an hour more of such intense sadness. But then the plot takes an unexpected twist; one that replaces grief with a revenge quest.
Alexandra confesses to Matt that she caught her mother having an affair with another man. This revelation drives Matt into a state of rage. After a heated interrogation, his wife’s friend gives up the other guy’s name– sending Matt on a mission to find and confront him. The change in pace brings welcome relief from the sadness, but Matt’s quest ads a layer of moral ambiguity to the plot. What starts as a straightforward grief tale, turns into a shades-of-gray character study. The added complexity brings believability and depth to the characters, but forces the viewer to question the wisdom of their actions.
I would be remiss if I did not also mention the setting of “The Descendants.” The movie was filmed on location in Hawaii, providing a luscious tropical backdrop that contrasts with the depressing subject matter of the plot. The beauty of certain shots brought gasps from the audience in my screening.
But more than just providing an interesting contradiction, the Hawaii setting is worked into the movie as a subplot. The King family are heirs to a massive estate on the island. While dealing with his wife’s condition, Matt is also forced to decide whether the family should sell the land to developers looking to build a resort. As he prepares to let go of his wife, Matt must also come to terms with letting go of something that has been in his family for generations.
The intense emotion of the plot and strong performances by the cast make “The Descendants” a worthy Oscar contender. Clooney proves once again that he ranks among the cream of the acting crop. Given tougher competition I would not place much confidence in it being named best picture; but, with the drama lineup this year, it has as good a shot as any.
Michael Brun is an alumnus of UW-River Falls.