Sunday, December 4, 2011

What Went Wrong

In a word? Nothing.

Oh, I could quibble about the long and overly expository voice-over at the beginning. Or the leisurely pace of the first act. Or maybe even the bad hair transplant on Robert Forster. But I’d be picking nits.

The Descendants in simply another winner from Alexander Payne (director and co-writer) and Jim Taylor (producer). Just like Election and Sideways, The Descendants is an adaption from a novel. And it proves to be great source material. In those previous two, Payne and Taylor took the best of the novel, trimmed what wouldn’t work well for a screen story, and in each made changes to the ending so as to make an already great story even better.

I didn’t read the novel on which The Descendants is based, but I suspect they performed similar magic with this. There is a pretty big subplot here involving Matt King’s family’s ownership of a huge parcel of prime Hawaiian real estate and its pending sale. It’s the kind of story line that could take up a huge chunk of pages in a novel and probably do so to the reader’s delight. However, in the film, it is featured just enough, and tied into the main plot almost perfectly, all of which indicates to me some more great choices by Payne and Taylor.

Of course, it helps to have George Clooney at the top of his game in this, playing a husband whose wife has been unfaithful to him at the most inopportune time (hard as that may be to imagine for most of the female audience). And the three actors playing King’s two daughters and the boyfriend of the oldest one all deliver the goods. In fact, Shailene Woodley almost steals the spotlight from Clooney. She’s a star. And despite the distraction of Forster’s hairline, he gives his usual pro performance as King’s angry father-in-law.

The ending may leave some feeling that there are a couple of unresolved sublots. I disagree. I think they are resolved just enough to satisfy, and the final wordless scene is pitch-perfect.

I don’t know what to tell aspiring writers to learn from this, since it is an adaptation and obviously has great source material. The best I can offer is to look at how those characters were written. Observe how little dialogue was needed to convey emotion and reveal character. Note also how what little dialogue was there was never on-the-nose and required us to interpret rather than just listen. And how even the smallest and subtlest of actions managed to give us a glimpse into the characters’ thoughts and feelings. When writing your own story, those are all good lessons to follow.

I know this post may run counter to the theme of this blog, but The Descendants simply gets it right.

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