Like many women of any age, I’d go see George Clooney in just about anything. But The Descendants pales in comparison with The Ides of March and Good Night and Good Luck, and that’s not because it wasn’t about a gripping, current issue. Because it was.
Anybody, including me, who has had a parent or close friend or romantic partner die after a long journey to that point knows about advance directives; couches that line a cheerful room in which the hospital bed is still the centerpiece; paperbacks read during long vigils; conversations in dim corridors at night. Some astute shots panned Clooney’s character and his two daughters sitting in one configuration at the bedside, chatting with a volunteer worker, making acquaintances in the hallways, and reading long books, and then shifted to another—the same people now in different positions, except for the reason for the vigil, who never moves on her own during the entire film.
But the script was thin on dialogue, the acting picking up momentum only in that last half hour, like a race horse that knows it is on its way to the finish line. The first half-hour consisted of Clooney’s voice-over narrative to such a degree that the other actors could have phoned their parts in on Skype.
And the script was thin on plot, too. Breathtaking views of Hawaii coastlines are nice but they don’t create story on their own. To waste still more time until the filmmakers can say, okay, the film is long enough, Clooney’s character takes his two daughters on a hop to still another island, where the weather is again cloudless. There he indulges in more open-Jeep rides to views that would make Rick Steves jealous.
Sure, the subplot is a real estate trust that Clooney’s character and his family owns, handed down, we are told more than once, from an original native ruler. But the audience figures out that it would be a shame to sell it to a developer way before a conflicted Clooney, an attorney, figures it out in a conversation with his endless cousins. And the script has us gazing at a wall of ancestral photos more times than necessary, trying too hard to remind the audience that descendants are where it’s at, both in inheriting property and inheriting our own particular family mishegas.
So the film was a dumbed-down version of what could have been a moving story. True, the characters of the two daughters, one about 17 going on 30 and the other about 10 going on, well, 11, displayed sincere change and growth, and that was the best writing in the film. The exploration of this complex topic didn’t add anything new to the dialogue about the end of life, and it wasn’t nearly as moving as everyone has experienced it outside the theater. You can find it at the Amherst and at Eastern Hills, but don’t hurry. Plenty of seats; viewers not so much.
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