The Big Island: A Review of “The Descendants”

Normally, I decide a few days in advance that I’m going to see a movie. I guess I’m just not very spontaneous generally. This was an exception. I decided just hours beforehand that I wanted to go see The Descendants, and as such I was very nearly late. I sped through the theater like a madman. In a memory I’ll cherish forever, I ran down the hallway towards the screen, and I could hear the 20th Century Fox fanfare playing. I finally found a seat in the instant that the film started. I think that it may have helped, to be honest. The film benefited from the lack of trailers and commercials. Those always make it a little more difficult to get pulled in to the movie at the start. I might actually start doing it from now on; it really made my experience with the film that much better.

So yeah, I liked the film. Is it the greatest film of all time? No. But it accomplished something that a lot of films don’t. No matter how I felt about the plot, I liked spending time in the world, with the characters. Ultimately, this film made the audience a fly on the wall, spying on the private lives of these people. I don’t know if that feeling was intentional or not, but either way it really worked. I wanted to spend more time watching their lives, seeing how they turned out.

As I mentioned in Part One of my Top Fives of 2011, I greatly admired the performance of the young Amara Miller in this film. She comes off as the exact opposite of the precocious, talentless child star. She gives a natural, effortless performance. It’s almost as if the role was written for her. In fact, there isn’t a single performance in this entire movie that isn’t absolutely phenomenal. Usually, in a movie with a cast this large, there’s at least one person who can’t quite hold up with the others, but that’s not the case here. Everyone does an amazing job, Clooney especially. He’s a lock for the Oscar, unless the Academy throws all their love on The Artist (which I haven’t seen, to be fair).

Hawaii looks beautiful in this film. The last film that I can remember prominently featuring the state was Disney’s Lilo and Stitch. However, that was a cartoon. This is reality. I happened to be sitting very close to the screen, (an unfortunate side-effect of being so late), and the beautiful Hawaiian landscapes were even more so for it. Also, the location worked thematically. For a story that is ostensibly about a man trying to bring people together, a state made up of a bunch of islands is an interesting place to set it.

But this movie does have a major problem, and it has to do with the screenplay. Narration is used as a device for the first fifteen or twenty minutes of the film (well-used, by the way, showing us what Clooney’s character is thinking in the moment, not just what he thinks of the events in retrospect), and then it is dropped altogether. This is lazy, lazy, lazy screenwriting. As a matter of fact, the film probably didn’t even need the narration to begin with. Director Alexander Payne is so talented that he could have laid out all of that exposition with no narration whatsoever. Either way, they needed to make a decisive choice when it came to the voice-over: Cut it all or keep it throughout.

Also, not every line works all that well. Some of the time, the dialogue is witty and realistic, and sometimes it is cheesy and awful. Turns out, two teams of people worked on the screenplay (something I guessed before the credits rolled), so maybe this isn’t all that surprising. But the story works, and that’s always the most important thing to me. This film isn’t revolutionary, but it’s sweet and simple. It’s the perfect movie for a quiet evening in.

*The Hawaiian word for “movie” is ki’i ‘oni’oni, but “film” is pepa pa’i ki’i. There is no Hawaiian word for “cinema”.


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Josh Rosenfield

Josh Rosenfield is a Film Media major at the University of Rhode Island. He has been writing Popcorn Culture since 2010.

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