The Descendants – And the Curse of Hollywood

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Alexander Payne is a great director. I loved Downsizing (yes, despite racial caricatures). It is an example of a well-executed satire – on the verge of silliness, yet retaining dignity, intelligence and emotional weight (plus Matt Damon is just great).

The Descendants, on the other hand, is an example of poorly executed satire. Because that’s what it is: a satire of human life – it’s messiness and absurdity – and a mockery of fate. 

It is the idea of a good film. But it suffers, I think, from a fatal malady: The Curse of Hollywood (Lightning strikes. Dramatic music plays. Dun dun duuun!). It is overloaded with cheap comic relief, soppy redemption, and irritating tropes, trying, very awkwardly, to have mass appeal – consequently giving up any pretense at art.  

The lasting impression is that of bad lemon meringue, where all the sour, subtle flavours are overpowered by a nauseating, artificial sweetness – the glaze of Hollywood.

Now I’m not saying this film is all bad. As mentioned, it has the elements of something great. Payne does well to bring in contrasts, of the serious and absurd, in order to create the satirical tone, and convey the contradictory chaos that is life. And it works… until it doesn’t.

Let’s talk about these contrasts first. Most obvious is the setting itself, Hawaii, presented in all its vacation pamphlet glory (there are some beautiful, if typical, shots). The casual, idyllic surroundings belie the serious subject matter – involving a coma, and impending death. Clooney’s composed and serious persona clash (in a good way) with the ridiculous and hopelessly tangled situation he finds himself in. The abrupt, matter-of-fact and sardonic delivery of tragic events borders on brilliant.

Up to a point, this film manages to retain emotional weight while creating a sense of chaos and absurdity.  

But satire is a supremely difficult balancing act (like walking on a razor blade). One poor decision can bring the whole thing toppling down.

It’s the humour that did it for me. Not situational humour, mind you. But jokes – forced, crude and deliberate. This is what brings the entire film crashing down into the realm of the ridiculous, turning from a satire of human life, to a satire of itself (a satire of a satire of human life, if you will). It loses its potency, that underpinning seriousness which turns satire from a bizarre collection of random events, into a coherent, powerful piece.  

Now situational humour I can handle. It’s what a satire is all about. It is the essence of Terry Pratchett’s brilliance.

But when the character start making jokes, I feel like not even they are taking this stuff seriously.

It all started with Sid.

A crackpot, rebellious teenager. As dumb as rocks (sorry rocks). Just cracking stupid jokes all over the place, making light of everything. But not in a skillful or subtle way. No, no, no. He is so blatantly just there for comic relief, that… there are no metaphors to describe it.

The worst part? He isn’t funny. Not remotely. Everything that comes out of his mouth sounds forced. He just looks uncomfortable. He makes me uncomfortable. I cringe just thinking of him.  

He is an obvious Hollywood stereotype, put there to provide Hollywood humour, and sweeten an otherwise bitter (but artfully so) pill.

He is not the only one though.

Now this is something I really hate (It makes me want to eat the mug of tea in front of me. Yes, eat.), so excuse the acidic criticism.

But oh my word, Scottie. She is the epitome of the sassy little girl stereotype. And I just hate it. All of it. Every time I see this in a film, it screams “Hollywood!” and “Cash grab!”. It’s supposed to be funny, but it isn’t. It really just killed (and stamped and spit on) any immersion I had.

I had reached my breaking point.

Now I might be a tad (okay a lot) prejudiced. But really, I cannot begin to comprehend how people find the ‘sassy little girl’ stereotype remotely funny.           

I must note, however, that I think Matt King (George Clooney) does walk the fine line successfully (but is perhaps the only character to do so). His performance really stands out. He initially conveys intelligence and composure, which makes his descent into overpowering emotion all the more poignant. He is the very picture of a man, usually so in control, tossed about by fate, and flung, finally, into the real world.

And, in opposition to what many might say, I loved the music. First of all, Hawaiian music is just cool. But, more importantly (I guess), it evokes a sense of ancient tradition, more than anything else in the film, and thereby emphasises the enormous historical responsibility placed on Matt.

Closing thoughts

The film was… entertaining, I guess. It certainly does stand out from your typical Hollywood comedy, by daring to tackle deeper themes and human tragedy, but has too much (deliberate) mass appeal to enter the domain of art.

It has substance (which I attribute to it being based on a book – movies based on books are almost always better), and certainly reaches for the profound – a potent portrayal of life’s messiness – but is overpowered and undermined by the very absurdity that almost elevated it.

The Curse of Hollywood prevails.

Rating:

Characters (15): 9. George Clooney is the only reason this didn’t get a 3 (which basically just means distinct characters were present). 

Storytelling (15): 11. The intertwining of the two main plotlines was good. Alexander Payne tells an interesting story, with unexpected but satisfying twists. I also like the non-synchronous narration.

Execution (30): 12. The proportions of comedy and tragedy were way out. A great idea – poorly executed.   

Emotional Response (20): 11. One or two scenes (Matt King shouting at his wife in a coma, for example) were emotionally charged. Most tension and feeling, however, was dissapated by attempts at humour.

Intellectual Value (20): 14. As I have said, an interesting, if poorly executed, idea. It could have been quite interesting.

Total (100): 57


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