Script Notes is a series about current cinema and what writers can learn from great (and not-so-great) scripts. This week's entry focuses on The Descendants, a drama about a man (George Clooney) whose wife slips into a coma after a boating accident. Now he must try to reconnect with his distant daughters while struggling with the news that his wife was having an affair. Some (very minor) spoilers ahead.
The Descendants is at turns dramatic, sad, and funny (sometimes uncomfortably funny), similar to director Alexander Payne’s other films About Schmidt and Sideways. The script is uneven at times, with monologues that start off serious and turn funny, and the audience not sure when (or even whether) to laugh or not. It is still an involving, thoughtful film that tells an emotionally satisfying story.
Two aspects of the film stand out from a screenwriting perspective, one positive and one negative. Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: The Descendants first few scenes have pretty dreadful voiceover while George Clooney is doing… not much of anything. He tells us that his family owns land that the law says they have to sell and he’s an uninvolved father.But these things are made clear through the plot itself in the following scenes through the actions of the characters (not Clooney staring off into space). It becomes clear how gratuitous the voice over is after it’s dropped completely for the rest of the movie. I don’t think, as some screenwriters do, that voiceover is always unnecessary (American Beauty wouldn’t have half the impact without Kevin Spacey’s voiceover), but in this case, it was pointless and extremely heavy-handed.
Something the screenplay gets right, though, is the relationship between Clooney and his older daughter, played by Shailene Woodley. It is the most realistic and interesting depiction of an older teenager (she’s 17) and her father that I have seen in a very long time. Clooney and Woodley play off each other marvelously; at times they spar, at times they team up, and at times they open up to each other. This father treats his daughter as an equal and an ally, and enlists her help in finding the man his wife had an affair with, rather than trying to keep her from the truth as one might expect. It is a familiar relationship with an interesting direction and a spark of new life, and it is the kind of textured character dynamic a screenwriter should strive to write.