I’ve been trying to think for some time now why the plot of The Descendants seems so familiar.  To briefly sum up, and I think I’m not describing anything that wasn’t in the trailer, George Clooney’s wife gets into a boating accident that leaves her on life support.  Things hadn’t been going great in that relationship, but Clooney is still surprised when his kid (Shailene Woodley) tells him that Mom was cheating on him.  While all this is going on, Clooney, as a result of land that goes several generations back in the family, is negotiating with his family to determine which of the various buyers he’ll sell the land to, transferring the largest lot of virgin land left in Hawaii and garnering a huge windfall.

So, OK.  Our cast of characters includes a cheating wife (and later on we are introduced to the guy with whom she was cheating) and various family members who aren’t really sketched out aside from the fact that they are bickering over who to sell to and are somewhat greedy, especially consider they didn’t really do anything to earn the land other than get lucky in the gene lottery.

Then it hit me.  That’s the plot of at least one episode of virtually every single mystery show I’ve watched.  And I’ve watched a ton of them.  I can turn this movie into an episode of Murder, She Wrote in three easy steps.  First, Jessica Fletcher gets involved in the case either because she is George Clooney’s cousin on the other side or because she was visiting an old friend who ended up in the same hospital as Clooney’s wife and she is the biggest busybody in the world.  Second, deviating from the movie a little, the police get called in and lock Clooney up for attempted murder, because they find his wife’s boat had been tampered with.  Third, Jessica now does all the stuff Clooney’s character did, except she snoops around a lot and figuring out who the real murderer was.

So perhaps it won’t be surprising to hear that I’m dismayed at all the acclaim the movie is receiving.  And not just because it isn’t actually a detective story.  I’m not necessarily shocked, though.  Other than not taking place during WWII, the film seems built to hit all the Academy notes.  George Clooney gets you half the way there, of course, but he’s playing a dad and husband who never really figured out what that means, though he’s trying to do so now.  Combined with the accident, you’ve got George Clooney as a flawed-yet-nearly-perfect rich single dad who lives in Hawaii.  Heck, I’m practically swooning over him.

For the straight males somehow immune (or pretending to be, most likely) to the charms of Clooney, you’ve got the beautiful Woodley.  She’s racking up the supporting nominations, but really, it is the bikinis she’s constantly in that should be getting the nominations for supporting her rack.  Ouch.  I’m sorry.  That’s a terrible line and I should know better.  Look, Woodley is a great actress and while I can’t yet say if she’d be in my top five, I’m certain I won’t be upset should we hear her name called nomination morning.  That said, she’s constantly wearing bikinis.  Even when no one else is in a bathing suit.  And John/Adam/Gavin made this point first after we left the theater, so I know I’m not just being pervy.

For issues voters, there’s Clooney trying to figure out how to be a dad and also dealing with white man’s burden.  And for the small percentage of geeks, there’s Judy Greer (with her Arrested Development cred) and co-writer Jim Rash (Dean Pelton on Community).

But frankly, I just don’t see how the film is deserving of all the acclaim it is receiving.  Since I know Adam isn’t going to write anything up, I’ll voice his complaint with the script: that it was uneven to the point where one scene would hit and the next would miss badly, suggesting it was pretty obvious the film was written by different writers.  I don’t necessarily disagree, even if I didn’t find the differences between scenes quite that stark.  Regardless, the script was maddeningly inconsistent.

The film found its biggest success when focusing on Clooney’s relationship with his kids (and by extension, his wife).  A “single” dad learning how to be a father to his kids isn’t exactly virgin cinematic territory.  But compare The Descendants, to, say, The Boys are Back, and you’ll see how this film is so confident and grounded in reality that the story never feels like it is one of those movies, in the sense that it is super easy to pigeonhole the Clive Owen movie as never escaping the single dad genre.

The other subplots, however, weren’t nearly as well-written.  The land deal, in particular, wasn’t fleshed out nearly enough.  The screenwriters didn’t figure out a way to adequately integrate that subplot with the rest of the film.  Which was frustrating, because it was interesting enough that I wanted to know more.  As is, however, it was pretty distracting.  To the point where I had zero emotional reaction to the inevitable scene of them looking out at their family’s land, other than wanting them to move things along.  I found the stuff with the wife’s infidelity adequate.  I liked all the actors involved (Mary Birdsong/Rob Huebel and Judy Greer/Matthew Lillard), but none of their scenes really stood out to me (save for Judy Greer’s final scene, of course).  That said, I appreciated how it served the family drama that I liked so much.

The Descendants is currently a near-lock for Oscar nominations for Picture, Director, Actor, and Adapted Screenplay, with Supporting Actress looking a pretty decent bet.  I enjoyed the film, but it is currently sitting around #25 in my list of 2011 movies, so you won’t be seeing the movie or script in my best of list.  As I mentioned with Woodley above, I’m OK with the seemingly inevitable Clooney nomination.  I’m not sure if he’ll end up in my personal top five, but I imagine he’ll be close enough that I won’t really get worked up over it.  Mostly, though, I’m confused about the passion this film seems to inspire in people.  I’m glad they are moved, I just can’t see why.

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