Proof that the yearly round of gong shows will soon be upon us once again is amply provided by the fact that, likely as not, currently showing in a cinema near you is at least one film that gives every impression of having been made by intelligent and mature adults for the enjoyment of the same. We still have a few months to go before the onset of comic-book and computer-game adaptations that, reassuringly, marks the beginning of summer.
One movie doing rather well in terms of gong-noms is Alexander Payne's The Descendants. In 2002 Payne made About Schmidt with Jack Nicholson, which I was rather impressed by, so I turned up for the new film with quite high expectations.
George Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian real estate lawyer with a lot on his plate. Not only does he have final say over the disposal of a vast and potentially lucrative tract of virgin land which could very well make both him and his large extended firm rather wealthy, but his wife is in a coma following a boating accident, leaving him in charge of their two daughters. He is not very comfortable with this, but things are about to get even worse.
Matt's wife shows no signs of recovery and under the terms of her living will her life support systems are to be disconnected. Also, his elder daughter (Shailene Woodley) has something to impart: completely unbeknownst to Matt, she has been having an affair with another man.
The film is about how Matt comes to terms with this and resolves his various issues, and on one level I can fully understand why this movie has become such a critical darling: as I suggested up the page, this is a thoughtful and grown-up film about the realities of life, made by an accomplished director, and built around a big leading man performance by a proper movie star. However, I have to say I haven't fallen in love with it quite as much as everyone else appears to (with the exception of my landlady, who advised me categorically not to go anywhere near it – though not until after I'd seen it).
On a purely technical level Clooney's performance is very good, of course, but I have to say that as his daughter Shailene Woodley is possibly even better. Either way my problem with the film is not with the cast but with the script, which – at least to begin with – isn't quite up to scratch. The film is really about loss and grief, but the situation at its centre is presented to us via a very trite and unremarkable voiceover – we barely get to see Matt's wife prior to her accident, and as a result there's very little sense of who she was or what the other characters have lost now she is gone. The performances make the anguish that Matt and the others are feeling very clear, but it's somehow difficult to genuinely feel or share it.
It may also be a factor that a few key scenes essentially take the form of various characters delivering lengthy monologues to each other. Even when the audience is comatose (I mean the listener in the scene, not people actually watching the film in theatres – it's by no means that bad), this still seemed to me to be rather theatrical, even bordering on the melodramatic.
All this said, I did warm rather to the film as it went on, particularly when Shailene Woodley's character became more central to the story: her performance really is impressive. To be honest, I wasn't initially sure what this film was about, beyond the slightly soapy central drama, but eventually it seemed to me to be about the difficulties of trying to be a genuinely good individual when encumbered by all the emotional and personal baggage that this typically entails.
One of the most impressive aspects of The Descendants is the way in which it handles this theme with appropriate subtlety and ambiguity and accepts that there are no easy answers – maybe no answers at all in some cases. Everything is addressed through ambiguity and shades of subtlety rather than by glib absolute pronouncements. Clooney is justifiably angry with his wife for her infidelity, but at the same time insistent that his elder daughter not let her own hostility spoil the final hours she will share with her mother. And, towards the end of the film, Clooney takes a significant decision which he claims is for reasons that most people would find laudable – but, as the audience, we are aware he has another motive for doing exactly the same thing which would be outright petty vindictiveness. In a choice that I found deeply impressive, the film opts not to address this ambiguity in the slightest – not to even highlight the fact it exists – and trust entirely to the audience's intelligence.
That said, I still found The Descendants more effective as a drama than a comedy – which is not to say that I didn't laugh at all, and I should point out that many people at the screening I attended were roaring their heads off at times when I was barely cracking a smile. Too much of the humour was cutesy or obvious to really work for me, I'm afraid. And while most of the film is put together virtually flawlessly, the soundtrack grated with me after a while – and I will now get soundly told off by one set of my acquaintances, as the score of this film is made up almost entirely of Hawaiian ukulele tunes! (What can I say, give me some Formby syncopation any day...)
So in the end I thought The Descendants was a fairly interesting film with some definite virtues but a lot of equally clear flaws. I don't necessarily think it deserves any awards, but then neither would I be surprised if it won some, simply because it's the kind of film people who vote for awards tend to like. If it is the best mature drama for grown-ups in the cinema at the moment, that says more about the state of that kind of film in general than it does for the actual quality of this particular film.