Alexander Payne, director of Sideways (2004), About Schmidt (2002), and Election (1999), is a critical darling and an Oscar winner, but I’ve never understood the fascination with him as a director. Sideways and Election are good films, funny and often quite darkly perceptive of human flaws, but they are visual unremarkable and dramatically lacking when measured up to the best of American dramatic cinema. And yet, Payne is always lauded as one of the best directors America has to offer. With The Descendants, his first film in seven years, that designation is even more perplexing.
The Descendants tells the story of Matt King (Clooney), a wealthy land baron in Hawaii who is struggling to take control of his family after a boating accident throws his wife into a terminal coma. Matt is the “backup parent,” as he tells us in the film’s clumsy voice-over narration that is wildly overused in the first half. He already struggles to connect to his daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), so when his wife is thrown into a coma, he is forced into a parental role he is not ready to fulfill.
However, things become even more complicated when Matt finds out his wife was having an affair. Now, unable to vent his anger or come to terms with a wife who will never regain consciousness, Matt seeks to find the man his wife was sleeping with, enlisting the help of Alexandra, in order to find some closure.
George Clooney is the best part of this movie. Like his fellow superstar Brad Pitt, Clooney can drop his celebrity persona and fully embrace the flaws of his characters. For such an attractive, charming man, he is very good at playing losers, which is what Matt King is. He wisely balances the comedic and dramatic elements of the film, playing both well. Most impressively, he fully inhabits his character’s contradictions. All Matt’s hypocrisies and shortcomings are on display, and Clooney’s natural charm does not temper his evident failures as a person. Unfortunately, while Matt is well written, the same cannot be said for the rest of the film’s characters.
Matt’s daughter Alexandra is the film’s ostensible co-lead. This is unfortunate because she is mostly irritating. Woodley’s acting is fine for the most part, but she isn’t up to the challenge during the big dramatic scenes. The moment when she is in her swimming pool and finds out the terminal nature of her mother’s condition, she preposterously dives under the water to let her cries out in a burst of air bubbles. The ludicrousness of the scene isn’t her fault — it is an example of the kind of overblown and awkward emotion this film revels in — but her acting is not able to make up for the script’s shortcomings. For having written teenagers so well in Election, Payne seems to have lost his understanding of how the teenage mind works.
The film’s side characters are written threadbare. They are peculiar, unattractive, and occasionally humourous, but while they are intended as satirical critiques of the inhabitants of contemporary American life, they are merely lazy caricatures.
The cinematography and editing are unremarkable. Some shots are painfully obvious in how they reach for poignancy. A particular shot of the Hawaiian land that Matt owns and is debating over the sale of lasts far too long and just begs the audience to accept it as being symbolic. Payne is overreaching for meaning here.
As well, during scenes in Matt’s wife’s hospital room where Matt or Alexandra are venting their anger at her while she lies passively unconscious in bed with a tracheal tube in her throat, Payne shoots the dialogue in a conventional two-shot, cutting to the wife’s face in the bed as if waiting for her response. While this is initially clever, Payne overuses this conceit and by the later scenes in the movie, the audience is too sick of staring at the sickly face of Matt’s wife to care what emotions are on display in the scene.
The film’s score is terrible, consisting of the most stereotypical Hawaiian music imaginable. If the clichéd score was meant to be ironic, this never comes across as the music is used to punctuate the dramatic scenes and coax you along from one emotional high to another. Like with Terms of Endearment, there is far too much music in this movie and its lack of quality detracts from every scene it plays over.
The film in general lacks editorial oversight. A subplot regarding the ownership of Hawaiian land and Matt’s pathetic group of loafer cousins is lazy writing and a sad component to justify the film’s title.
The Descendants had potential. The initial concept of characters that are frustrated with a wife and mother who cannot respond and is guaranteed to die is an intriguing dramatic situation, but the film never lives up to this potential. Too often, the tone is unsure. Either the humour distracts from the emotion or the emotion is overblown and needs tempering. It is a strange mix of black comedy and sentimentality that does not work.
The critics are really drinking the Kool-Aid regarding this one. While it’s not an awful film, there is no reason to applaud The Descendants, much less consider it the best film of the year. It is merely a failure with some interesting components and a typically strong performance by one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
The Descendants (2011)
Directed by Alexander Payne; written by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings; starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Robert Forster, Matthew Lillard, and Judy Greer.
5 out of 10