The genius of a film such as Boogie Nights is that it uses an uncommon lifestyle to examine the workings of a family unit. No matter what happens, those characters will always love and need each other. In a depressingly realistic style, The Descendants hits the same notes, but finishes leaving you feeling a bit empty.
Saying Matt King is under a lot of pressure would be an understatement. His wife’s in a coma, his younger daughter’s acting out, his older daughter’s a troublemaker, his father-in-law blames him for everything, and he’s in the midst of closing the deal on a large land sale. On the day he’s told outright that his wife won’t make it, his older daughter drops a bombshell: his wife was cheating on him. While taking his kids and an unwanted guest around to inform everyone that now is the time to say goodbye to his wife, Matt decides to track down the man his wife was seeing, as he has the right to say goodbye to her as well.
Remove the 20 minutes of Matt and company searching for the adulterer, and you’re left with a movie of watching people react to sad news. The long string of attempts to make you cry end up overshadowing any character development. While the theme of damaged relationships is the point, the main focus of Matt and his daughter Alexandra is a bit confusing. Her actions toward her father (mainly in reference to all events before learning her mother’s fate) seem to contradict her feelings. Following the logic that unfortunate situations help clear the view of past issues, it’s maddening that such simple solutions were never enacted by these characters before. The first quarter of the film is presented with a George Clooney voice over describing how he doesn’t know how to deal with his children and his distancing relationship with his wife. It shouldn’t take an entire film for the character to realize he was never involved with his family in the first place.
Besides bringing out his Coen brothers style (during the lighter moments), Clooney plays the most damaged character of his career. Over the top at times, he throws out a range of emotions with ease, switching at the drop of a hat. Much more deserving of praise here than with his overrated role in Up In The Air, he proves to be the best element in this particular film.
The Descendants certainly will touch audiences. Seeing so many films that deal with the same subject and dealing with the death of many of my loved ones, I have become a little desensitized. Realizing this, The Descendants still misses the mark on too many levels to move me towards real emotion, and detracts from what would have been a solid artful examination of the family construct.