The movie then spends what remains of its 115 minute run-time showing you that, yes, Hawaii is paradise. This overturning of initial characterization occurs again and again throughout Descendants.
Director: Alexander Payne
Main guy: George Clooney
17 year old daughter: Shailene Woodley
10 year old daughter: Amara Miller
Friend of Shailene: Nick Krause
Comatose wife of Clooney: Patricia Hastie
Lover of Wife (prior to comatose, not during because that'd be weird): Matthew Lillard
Wife of Hastie's lover: Judy Greer
Father of Clooney's wife: Robert Forster
No character ever says anything about people being multi-faceted, multi-dimensional. In other words: the movie never tells us this. The point is demonstrated many times over.
The notion of every character is overturned. TIME's Richard Corliss describes this in a negative way:
Read more: http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,2093113,00.html#ixzz1gA5DBIpC
Sid is Woodley's friend (Nick Krause). Alex is the 17-year old daughter. I'm fine with people being "first one thing, then another." How many people have you watched, in real life, "ripen organically"? You're at a movie. The theater is PACKED. So you're sitting, in one of the first rows, next to two guys you don't know, and one's talking about the "whore" he's going to "thunder gun" later. You're disgusted. You get up and move to the back of the theater; worse seat, but you're far away from that jackass. When the movie ends, you want to send a text but you can't find your phone. What did you? Oh.... You left your iphone in the cup holder of your first seat. Shit. Everyone is already up, leaving. Someone probably took it. Due to all the people, it takes forever before you can get out of your row. You hurry down the stairs to your first seat. And what do you know? The disgusting kid is waiting at the bottom of the stairs. He hands you your phone: "Hey, we didn't notice you left this until someone took your seat and asked if it was mine. Glad we caught you. Have a nice one." Hasn't your impression changed? The guy isn't a saint, but is he the monster you originally thought? Did he ripen organically? No. You just hadn't had an opportunity to see this facet of his character.
When we first meet Alex (Woodley): she's drunk. She's at a boarding school because she's struggled with drugs and at not causing trouble. She swears a lot. When Clooney takes her out of the boarding school to help him in the wake of her mother's coma, we think Woodley will be a problem. She is rude, she impudently invites Krause over during a time of familial strife that Clooney would prefer to handle without a stranger hanging around. But Woodley becomes Clooney's lieutenant, gives him direction and support, stability.
Same with Krause. In his initial scenes, I thought Krause the most annoying character of 2011. My friend kept muttering how much she hated him. But then Payne gives us a scene where Krause explains more about himself, reveals the depth that Corliss describes, and the real reason Woodley invites Krause is made clear: Krause's father had, four months before, passed away. Woodley is helping Krause by allowing him to come along, distracting him from his own familial drama. Krause is also supporting Woodley, who will soon lose her mother.
The mother too (Hastie). We see her in the opening shot of the movie. She's water-skiing or wake boarding or doing something like that. She's alive and happy. Then, a few shots later, she's comatose. The scene we saw is the moments before an accident that will be the death of her. Clooney is distraught. With no real information about Hastie, most of us will assume she fits the generic wife/mom stereotype: loving, considerate. Her warm image is supported by Clooney's sadness, by the friends (Mark and Kai--character names, not actor names) that are at the hospital spending time with her. This image is destroyed when Woodley reveals to Clooney that her mother was cheating on Clooney. Suddenly Hastie is a sort of villain.
This revelation of complexity happens with the father-in-law, with Lillard, Greer, with Mark and Kai, with the idea that the King family is going to sell the 25,000 acres of land they own, with the idea that Hawaii isn't paradise.
Throughout the movie Payne gives us random shots of Hawaii. They're beautiful. Lush. Opposite of the ugly sequence that supported the opening voice over. When Clooney decides he won't sell the land, it's because he thinks the land deserves to remain pristine, protected. Paradisiacal. When Hastie eventually passes on, Clooney, Woodley, and Miller, from a ceremonious canoe, far from shore, pour her ashes into the cerulean water. There are verdant mountains in the background. And the tall buildings that mark human development. This gets at the tension in Hawaii, in modern ecology: the struggle between nature and society. And with this scene, the scattering of Hastie's ashes with natural and human Hawaii commingling in the background, we see there exists a balance in Hawaii. If Clooney were to have sold the 25,000 acres, the balance would tip, Hawaii would begin its descent. Whatever spirit of Paradise Hawaii contains would be, soon enough, lost. And we can't help but think of Paradise (thanks, again, to the opening monologue) when the King family is burying their matriarch, that she is, in a sense, already in heaven. And that's the peace we get with the last shot of father and daughters sitting on a couch, sharing ice cream. Nothing fancy. The drama that has marked the entirety of the movie has passed.
If the movie weren't so...feel good, if it were a tad darker, I would take this as a sign that Miller doesn't change, that she won't improve but will turn out disastrous. I think we could make an argument for it. But I don't think this conclusion was intended. I think the ambiguity surrounding Miller is more to say that her future is undecided.
And this brings us to the life lessons of The Descendants:
1. We can't and don't know everything about the people around us. Even those closest to us.
2. We can't and don't know the future, what will happen to us or those around us. One second we can be laughing and loving life...the next... Or. We can spend weeks and months having our life crumble, caught in a vortex of shitty feelings, until, all of the sudden...
What do we learn from these lessons? How can we use this knowledge? That's up to you to figure out. I'd recommending starting by not jumping to conclusions about people (unless they seem like a serial killer, in that case I think listening to your gut is a good call). And trying to make each and every moment as...appreciable as possible.
Did I Like It:
Yes. It's an obvious Oscar pic. At the minimum, it'll probably get nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress/Supporting Actress (Woodley).
I laughed. I cried. I was intrigued.
It's a movie I would recommend to everyone.
I thought it was crazy the dude from Scream is so old. I guess it has been a while since Scream was new.
Not a big fan of the voice over. It conveyed the necessary information. But I hate when movies intro with a voiceover, use it once more and that's it. I'm not usually about all-or-nothing, but I think if you're going to use a voice over, fucking use the voice over. Or else let the camera work do the talking. Ridley Scott thought he failed to use voice over effectively in the theatrical release of Blade Runner and removed it from the Director's Cut. Totally different movie. Overall, I do think The Voice Over is a better idea than The Contrived Conversation That Gets At The Theme.
I think this was the most dynamic I've seen Clooney be as an actor. And Woodley did a great job.
What It's Good For:
-any movie fan
-people who have been to Hawaii
-people who haven't been to Hawaii
-people who love the environment and like films that support that message
-Alexander Payne fans
-some people intensely loyal to Sideways have been disappointed with the lack of snark in The Descendants, so, be warned
-bad for commercial developers who have no patience for people that love nature's elegance
-also bad for anyone so consumed by guilt for never having gone to Hawaii that they grieve whenever they hear the state's name, the word Aloha, or see a floral patterned shirt
-trigger for anyone from the cast of Lost that suffers PTLD
-actually, a trigger for any fan of Lost that's suffering PTLD: the Hawaiian landscape will trigger painful memories
% Character / % Actor's personality
Clooney: 85/15 (still some Clooney-isms, but mostly a fresh character turn)
Woodley: 55/45 (doesn't seem too far removed from herself)
Payne: Sidways; Paris, je t'aime; and he wrote a draft of Jurassic Park III????
Clooney: Three Kings; O Brother, Where Art Thou; Ocean's Eleven; Burn After Reading; Up in the Air; The Ides of March
Scream: Wes Craven, Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox
Hawaii movies: 50 First Dates; Punch-Drunk Love; Lilo & Stitch; Forgetting Sarah Marshall; From Here to Eternity