If they gave out Oscars for mediocrity…

Clooney is okay in The Descendants, but the rest of the movie is a shallow and schmaltzy affair.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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The Academy Awards was the brainchild of MGM producer Louis B Mayer, and began as an attempt to reward filmic excellence at a time when filmmakers and film actors had little credibility. A far cry from the glitzy, orchestrated performance that it is today, the very first Oscars ceremony in 1929 was a low-key, private function in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Guest tickets were a mere five dollars, only 15 awards were handed out and, having announced the winners three months previously, many of the nominees didn’t even bother to show up.

Today, the Oscars is the biggest night in the Hollywood calendar, and winning one of the famed statuettes is as much a confirmation of one’s status in the business as it is a mark of artistic merit. While each year the nominations for the 24 categories recognise some truly worthy films and filmmakers, the top awards remain a kind of elite club that honours the staying power of the lucky winner rather than the quality of their work that year.

After making critically acclaimed, box-office smashes for three decades, Martin Scorsese earned his first award for Best Director in 2006 with The Departed, which was far from his finest hour. On the other end of the scale there is Sandra Bullock, who outraged the film world in 2009 when she was named Best Actress for her astoundingly half-decent performance in The Blind Side. As such, the highest honours have become little more than a pat on the back for managing to stay in the limelight for a decent amount of time.

When the nominations for the eighty-fourth awards ceremony were announced at the end of January, Alexander Payne’s The Descendants was one of two films that hit the hallowed trifecta, gaining nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, for George Clooney’s lead performance. The film sees Payne at nowhere near the height of his capabilities and Clooney in typically semi-competent form yet, if the pattern bears, it should be a formidable contender at the Oscars this year.

Following the tried and true formula Payne perfected with About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2004), The Descendants centres on an emotionally impotent man muddling his way through a tragicomic series of events. Matt King (George Clooney) is a Hawaiian, workaholic lawyer who has little time for his dysfunctional family. This all changes when his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), falls into a coma after a speedboat accident. Soon the doctor’s tell him that Elizabeth won’t recover and, following the stipulations of her living will, they must remove her from life-support.

Matt is left to sort out his wife’s last wishes, reconnect with his daughters, and negotiate the high-profile sale of hundreds of acres of untouched Hawaiian land that has been in his family for generations. The plot thickens when his wayward eldest, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), returns from boarding school and tells him that, in the months before the accident, his wife was having an affair. The rest of the film follows Matt in his attempts to come to terms with all that has happened and regain a sense of what is important in his life.

The Descendants is based on a novel of the same name by Hawaiian author Kaui Hart Hemmings and is adapted by Payne and his co-writers with care and warmth. His direction is light but expressive, and the gorgeous landscapes of Hawaii serve as a perfect foil for the bittersweet turns of the narrative. Nevertheless, the film bears a certain schmaltzy gloss that compromises this delicate balance.

What made Payne’s previous work so hard-hitting was that despite being extremely cynical and closed off, his protagonists were human and their struggles had, for all their dark humour, a pang of reality. Matt King is presented to us as a kind of young Warren Schmidt yet, despite his curmudgeonly narration insisting he’s damaged goods, he regains his zest for life pretty easily. Where Payne usually offers only a glimmer of hope for his wayward anti-heroes, we see Matt King take everything in his stride and come out a better, more rounded individual for it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except that Matt’s journey from emotionally detached malcontent to bleeding-heart family man is incredibly unconvincing.

While there are several moving scenes, the film is nevertheless marred by its painfully generic script. Clooney’s opening narration, in which he refutes the claim that all Hawaiians live in paradise, with the less than elegantly put ‘Paradise can go fuck itself’, offers about as much emotional insight as the diary entry of a dejected teenager. Similarly, as Matt starts to soften, his Hallmark-card platitudes about love and forgiveness, feel incredibly cheap for a screenwriter of Payne’s skill.

Many critics have deemed this Clooney’s greatest performance to date. While this may well be true, this isn’t really saying much. He plays the inexpressive, closed-off patriarch rather well, but this seems down to his ineptitude more than anything else.

As it draws to a close, The Descendants regains some semblance of the understated poignancy for which Payne is known, but on the whole it remains an underwhelming story about reconciliation and doing the right thing by our loved ones. It dilutes Payne’s classic themes into a far more contrived format and gives Clooney a decent role in which to flaunt his average abilities. In short, it is Oscar-worthy through and through. Payne and Clooney have certainly stuck around long enough to deserve recognition and this sweet but pedestrian film is the perfect vehicle to earn them a couple of those gaudy statuettes.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

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