The Descendants (2011) Review **WITH SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS**

WARNING: Do not continue reading unless you want to be spoiled on key plot points of the movie, The Descendants.

Well hey there, everyone!   It’s been a while, hasn’t it?  I haven’t had the time until now to write an entry–and you don’t want to know how many drafts I have in queue right now that I have to eventually finish and post.   At some point I’m going to finally take a seat and rework this site too so that it looks cleaner and is easier to navigate.  For the moment though, please forgive me because I just haven’t had the time.

Now that I have a minute, I’ve decided to sit down and plug out what I can.  I’ll start with The Descendants.  For me, it was one of those movies that was definitely refreshing to watch, but can all too easily be forgotten with the passage of time; and not because I thought it was bad.  In fact, I felt quite the opposite about it, but let me not get too ahead of myself.

This spoiler-filled review is one of those halfway detailed jobs; partially because I ran into some “technical difficulties” (which I will explain in a bit) and the other reason is because it’s been a few days since I’ve seen it, so my memory is going to be a little hazy; I apologize for this in advance.

Something I’ll say right off the bat–if you enjoyed Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Juno (2007), Up in the Air (2009), 500 Days of Summer (2009), Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011), and Moneyball (2011), then you’ll probably enjoy this film.  Especially if you enjoyed George Clooney’s character/acting in Up in the Air.  It has that same real life situation-type feel and similar slowish tone–but not so real that it comes off as dry or too realistic to be considered entertaining.  (I’m not the only one that goes to watch movies to take a mini-vacation from real life a little bit, right?  Haha.)

As always, a little ramble at the start, followed by the spoilers, and the review is at the bottom, for those who would like to scroll to that.

I drove a good hour away from my house in order to see this movie since it was in limited release, meaning the only theater that I knew would have this movie was this artsy movie downtown that usually only carries limited release, foreign films, and movies that don’t get a lot of mainstream advertising/no one ever really hears or seems to care about.  (I also realize it was going to be widely released the next day, but I was itching for a movie since my schedule’s been too chaotic lately to make room for one; not to mention that there were more flicks I’ve been wanting to see that I knew would all open Wednesday instead of the usual Friday theater release routine because of Thanksgiving.)  Needless to say, it was definitely worth the sitting in traffic, bad weather, and $3 parking garage fee.

Unfortunately, I missed the first 5 minutes of the film because I couldn’t find the theater at first–it’s been about nine or ten years, give or take, since I’ve made a trip to this particular theater location.  Luckily a tourist from Cali was happy to help me find the theater with his smart phone (and he was so kind, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I also had a smart phone that could’ve helped me find the way–I knew I was real close so I was hoping to grab a local to point me in the right direction instead of waiting for my phone to load).

Anyway, I feel like I didn’t miss too much; I walked in right when George Clooney was narrating next to his wife’s hospital bed.  (George Clooney plays a character named Matt King, which is what I’m going to call him for the remainder of this entry.)

It’s established pretty early on that Matt King is a very busy man; if I recall correctly, he’s even working at his desk while he thinks of his wife and mentally speaks to her.  (I was trying to grab a seat at that point, so I can’t remember if the camera was showing two sets or two sides of the same set.  What I mean by this is, I can’t remember if Matt was doing office work on a makeshift desk in the hospital while watching his wife, or if he was at home working and when he was looking ahead, he was spacing out, but we were shown his comatose wife, as if he was looking at her while working.  Sorry if that made no sense…but more incentive to watch the movie for yourself, right?  Haha.)

Matt narrates how his wife came to be comatose, which was a boating accident–this shouldn’t come as a surprise to audience members who’ve done a little bit of their homework and looked up sites like IMDB for a synopsis.  His thoughts eventually trail off and he starts saying to his wife (in a very unconvincing and almost sarcastic sounding mental voice) that he’ll “change his ways,” “be a better husband,” and basically “be a better man.”

I believe his internal narration continues for a bit as he picks up his one daughter, Scottie, played by Amara Miller.  Scottie is a bit of a troublemaker; she harasses one of her schoolmates via text (with some very rude comments, I might add), has a friend that is definitely a bad influence on her (with her stuck-up attitude and her exposing Scottie to porn on cable TV–though this doesn’t come until later), and also has a bit of a potty mouth (but this comes as no surprise when you meet her older sister, which is very soon).  Matt apparently hasn’t tried to take care of Scottie since she was 3 years old, used to leaving her with his wife; she is now ten years old.  (I got a little distracted here because I was trying to pay for the garage parking meter using my phone, so I missed a few bits.  Even more unfortunately, I definitely missed a scene or two because I had to eventually get up from the theater for a bit so that I could get better cell reception to remotely pay for my meter–the theater rooms are underground.)

One of the scenes I think I may have missed was when the doctor tells Matt that nothing more can be done for his wife and that she cannot be revived.  He also learns that she has “do not resuscitate” orders in her will.  These facts are pretty much the cornerstones that drive the rest of the movie.

The next part I clearly remember though is when Matt takes Scottie to a restaurant, where the guy that was on the boat with Matt’s wife when the boating accident happened runs into them.  (Can’t remember his name for my life, but let’s just call him blonde beach guy, because that’s what he looks like.)  Anyway, the guy tells Matt that what happened to his wife wasn’t his fault, that she hadn’t been the one driving–he was.  Matt gets frustrated and doesn’t seem to believe the guy at first, insisting his wife would never have let it happen, but more than that, he just doesn’t want to talk about it, especially in front of his daughter.  The blonde beach guy insists on pressing the issue, however, and this causes Scottie to storm off in anger.  Without really saying goodbye to the blonde guy, Matt goes and chases after his daughter.

He catches up with her quickly outside the restaurant and cheers her up by saying they should go pick up her older sister from school.  They catch a flight and reach the school that night, I believe.  His older daughter’s name is Alexandra, played by Shailene Woodley.  When they reach her dorm, they find out from her roommate that she’s not there, but outside.  Matt, Scottie, and the dorm RA go out and find Alexandra and her friend outside high as kites.  Alexandra seems to sober up quickly though when her father tells her that she needs to come back home and see her mother.

A scene or two later, Matt is carrying his older daughter up the steps of his house to her room, his younger daughter running up the stairs in front of him and going into her room to sleep.  All the while Matt is again mentally narrating, this time about how he’s used to being the “back-up parent,” and expressing his doubts about being able to parent his two girls without their mother, and sarcastically notes that all the women in his life seem to be trying to destroy him–his wife with her accident, Scottie with her trouble-making tendencies, and Alexandra with her drug use.

The next morning, Matt makes breakfast for Scottie, only to be told that she hates eggs.  When asked why she didn’t tell him while he was making them, she responds by saying she thought he had been making them for himself.  Alexandra enters the kitchen a few minutes later and she and Matt basically have a short and clipped conversation before she leaves the room.

The scene change is a little abrupt here; suddenly we see Alexandra in a bikini, sitting on the edge of their private (and very dirty) pool, seemingly getting the juicy gossip from a friend on the phone.  Matt tries to get her attention, but she ignores him at first.  After a couple failed attempts, he resigns and decides to start idly cleaning the leaves out of the pool while he waits for his daughter to finish on the phone.  Alexandra hangs up not too long after he starts doing this and asks him when the pool cleaner is supposed to come by and make rounds.  Matt seems to think about it at first and then confesses that he doesn’t know.  At some point Scottie pops out in her older sister’s underwear, irritating Alexandra.  (There’s an ongoing subtle theme of Scottie’s fascination with breasts–which she does not yet have–and possibly some jealousy that she does not yet have them throughout the film.)  Matt quickly sends his younger daughter back inside, telling her to change into a proper bathing suit.  She does so, but not before flicking off her father and older sister.  To this, Alexandra sarcastically remarks that her father is doing a “great job.”  This comment gives Matt an opportunity to awkwardly segue into letting his daughter know about the fact that her mother is going to die, and about the “do not resuscitate” order.  Alexandra then quickly sinks into the dirty pool and the next few shots are of her screaming underwater before swimming out, upset at her father’s awkwardness and poor timing.

The next scene should be familiar to anyone who’s watched the trailer; Matt and his daughter are sitting in their living room, and they have a conversation where we eventually find out that Matt’s wife has been cheating on him with a guy named Brian Speer.  (Alexandra tells him this after Matt has asked her to help him relay the news about her mother to all the people they know and care about.)  Apparently Alexandra discovered this information firsthand, having seen her mother and Brian walk into his house with his hands on her.  Despite the fact that she doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with her father, Alexandra seems more on his side than her mother’s.  Matt then (very calmly) loses it and then follows that comical running scene that should be familiar from the trailer (and though I’ve seen it before, I still thought it was just as funny).

He runs all the way to a pseudo-friend’s house–I call them pseudo-friends because…well, you’ll see in a minute.  Anyway, when he reaches the house he just waltzes right in (yes, the door is open).  The couple he’s visiting are in the middle of a domestic squabble, and in fact, the wife plainly says so.  The scene seems to imply that the couple are just very trusting and open, or perhaps it’s the whole town.  Regardless, they all eventually end up in the living room and Matt asks them if they knew the man his wife was cheating on him with.  It turns out they do know, which means either they were very close with the wife or they just happen to be the town’s gossip center.

The wife doesn’t want to give up any information right away, using the excuse that Matt’s wife isn’t around to defend herself.  Matt then lets her know about the do not resuscitate order, which inspires a very awkward, very fake looking crying scene and her husband eventually hinting that they do know that Matt’s wife has been cheating on him, and that no, it isn’t the blonde beach guy (Matt asked).  The wife scolds her husband for breaching some unwritten friendship code with the wife, to which the husband replies that Matt is his friend too.  Matt allows for the information to sink in for a bit, and then leaves, deciding that there is no point in pressing for more details about the guy that his wife cheated with since his wife is on her deathbed anyway.  He mutters a few things to himself and leaves the residence.  Before he gets too far, the husband–now that I think about it, I think his name is Mark–stops him and gives Matt a name: Brian Speer.

With this new information, Matt goes back home where he meets Sid, his older daughter’s “friend.”  Now I thought Nick Krause was absolutely hilarious in this role.  He plays the hippy teen islander boy role very well.  If you watch the movie, you’ll see what I mean.  Any scene with him in it is just funny.  (I don’t think I remembered to mention this before, but earlier when Matt talks to Alexandra about going with him to break the news to friends and family, his daughter sets the condition that Sid is to come with them wherever they go.)  I’m not sure if the character is written this way, but it almost seemed Clooney-esque that Matt didn’t react in a typical over-protective fatherly fashion.  He just came off more as, “So long as you don’t bother me and you don’t hurt or impregnate Alexandra, then fine.  Be clear that I don’t like it, but fine.”

The first family they visit is Matt’s father-in-law; his wife’s father.  There, his father-in-law basically talks down to Matt and his daughter, making it clear that he thinks that the lot of them are all schmucks and schmoozes, and that his daughter is a saint compared to them.  Later on in the visit, the father brings out the going senile mother-in-law.  For those who saw the trailer for this movie and wondered why an old man clocked Sid in the face, here’s why–Sid basically laughs at the grandmother’s state because he thinks she’s just playing around.  The grandfather, understandably upset by this, punches the kid in the face.

Anyway, eventually Sid, Alexandra, and Matt are back in the car and driving home.  Sid says a few more insensitive things, and eventually the conversation shifts to the subject of Brian Speer.  Alexandra reminds Matt that she knows where Brian lives (or at least where she saw the house he took her mother into), and they drive up to a house with a turtle design on an outside wall.  Their search is sort of fruitless because even though Matt now knows where this man’s house is, Brian doesn’t appear to be home.  He’s about to just go home and try his best to forget about things when Alexandra notices Brian’s face on a realtor sign post outside of a house.  A new plot hatches.

Matt goes home and leaves a fake name in Brian’s voicemail and feigns interest in the house he is selling.  Nothing happens at first, but a day or two later he gets a call back from Brian’s secretary.  Alexandra answers the phone for him when he hesitates, and they learn that Matt can either choose to see the house with the secretary, or wait for an open house event.  They also find out that Brian is on a different Hawaiian island.  Naturally, as one might suspect, Matt doesn’t take either option the secretary has offered him and decides to go straight to the beach that Brian is vacationing on.

Here’s where things start spiraling in a Crazy, Stupid, Love kind of way.  Matt goes to the island that Brian is on and at some point meets up with his cousin (I think his name was Hugh?) and finds out that Brian is the brother-in-law of the realtor they’re currently planning on selling the family’s land inheritance to.  (Just a brief aside, this is one of the many times I felt bad for Matt’s character in the movie.  Makes you wish he’d just say something instead of having everyone get upset at him, but I suppose it makes sense considering that I don’t think his family and friends would have understood things from his angle anyway.)

At this point I’m going to have to start skipping scenes and only describing ones that stick out best in my memory, because it’s been a few days since I watched this.  As a result, I’ll just write what sticks out most clearly in memory.

So sometime after he find out this new development about Brian, Matt goes for a run on the beach.  Someone is running towards him, and it turns out to be Brian.  Another hilarious running scene by George Clooney ensues, and Matt finds Brian’s beach house.  He spies for a couple minutes and discovers that Brian is indeed married and with children.

On what appears to be the next day, Matt guides his family to the section of the beach where Brian and his family are spending time.  He has not yet told his children or Sid why they are in that particular spot in the beach.  Soon, Brian’s wife comes out with her kids and Matt strikes up a casual conversation with her, and leaves her a bit confused by the end of it.  (I’m sure at this point the woman was starting to suspect something was a tad off, if anything.)

Matt later tells his daughter about the beach house and Brian’s wife, and the pair of them decide to confront Brian.  That night, they go to the beach house and are greeted by Brian’s wife.  Some small talk ensues and eventually Brian comes down the stairs and his eyes go huge once he finds out who Matt is.  To make a long story short, Alexandra takes Brian’s wife and distracts her, and Matt confronts Brian inside the house under the pretense that he just wants to see what it’s like inside.  They exchange words; Matt grills Brian with questions like if his wife was really cheating on him (the answer being yes), if he’s been in Matt’s room (the answer also being yes, at first claiming one time and then later confessing that he’s been in there twice), if his wife was going to leave Matt (also yes), and whether or not Brian loved Matt’s wife (and the answer is interestingly no, and I almost want to say it’s because he knew of Matt’s wife’s current state).

Oddly (or perhaps not so oddly) enough, Brian just lets all the information sink in, then he leaves with his daughter–if I’m going to be honest, I can’t remember for sure if there was at least one punch in there, but I think there might have been.  I do remember echoing his daughter’s sentiment of why Matt didn’t decide to do more damage than that, but I suppose that just shows the strength of his character, since he probably realized none of it would have changed things or made them any better anyway.

Everything just seems to fall into place after that, to some degree; the plug is pulled on Matt’s wife, Matt alerts all of his wife’s friends and family to go and say goodbye, his two daughters each have an emotional moment, and Matt also says a few last words to his almost ex-wife (including semi-reluctantly forgiving her).  I can’t remember if it’s before or after Matt says goodbye to his wife, but Brian’s wife comes barging in and says to Matt’s wife that she forgives her with a mixture of bitterness and sarcasm.  Matt tries to calm her down and encourage her out when she starts to get hysterical.

There’s some other scenes here and there that I remember, like a scene where Matt bonds with Sid when he finds out that the kid isn’t entirely rotten after all–there’s a hilarious scene where Matt can’t sleep and he’s asking Sid for parenting advice, and he finds out Sid’s father died some time ago.  There’s also a random family reunionish scene where Matt announces that he’s not going to sell the land to anybody, much to the extreme disappointment of cousin Hugh (and implied other family members).  Unfortunately, they must not have been significant enough because I can’t remember them all, and I also can’t place the two that I’ve mentioned in the exact points of the story.

I do remember the ending though, and I kind of liked it.  The last scene is very simple; we fade in from white to see Scottie sitting on a couch and watching TV.  We don’t see the TV, it essentially looks like she’s staring at us.  Matt comes out from the kitchen with some ice cream and hands a bowl to Scottie; he starts eating out from the other one he has as they watch TV together.  Alexandra eventually comes from the kitchen; she watches her father and sister at first before sitting down next to Matt, who hands her his bowl of ice cream and takes Scottie’s bowl.  We watch them eat ice cream and stare at the TV/movie audience before the credits roll.


Now for the review bit.  For anyone who wants to know what I mean by the different stars and letter grades, please refer to my Movie Reviews Guide.

Originality: ***
Picture: ***
Sound: ***
Story: ****
Casting: ****
Re-watch Factor: ***
Overall: ****

FINAL VERDICT: A-

I definitely enjoyed this movie more than I thought I would.  I tend to be a little biased towards actors that critics rant and rave about, just because I’ve grown weary of mainstream hype in general–I don’t really hold anything specific against the actors themselves; some of them may not lead the life of an upstanding citizen, but I hardly follow the scandals and whatnot, that’s their business.  The only thing I’m really interested in is the work that they do and whether or not they do a great job on their projects.  In this case, I think Clooney gave a wonderful performance.  With the exception of a few scenes and maybe a character or two, I really felt this movie was pretty well paced and balanced.

I’m also going to be completely honest with you all–if my descriptions for this movie sound bland, I want to assure you that the movie definitely isn’t.  I readily admit that my post probably doesn’t entirely do the film justice.  I can’t say I personally found this movie to be 100% DVD-worthy, but I definitely think it’s good for a re-watch or two.


Again, I still have a ton of entries left in my blog queue, and hopefully I’ll make some progress over the weekend, though it’s going to have to be in between my school project.

Until next time, everyone!

2 responses to “The Descendants (2011) Review **WITH SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS**

  1. Clooney and everybody else included is great but it’s really Payne who shines as the writer bringing out some funny humor but not without forgetting about the real rich moments of human drama. Good review. Check out mine when you get the chance.

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