I’m a big fan of writer/director Alexander Payne–Election and Sideways are two of my favorite films of the last fifteen years. The Descendants is more in line with the film of his I liked least, About Schmidt, in that it leans toward the sentimental. Payne does better when he casts a gimlet eye on his protagonist.
Here the protagonist is Matt King, played by George Clooney. He is directly descended from Hawaiian royalty and one of the first white families to inhabit the islands. A successful attorney, he is the trustee in charge of a large parcel of oceanfront land that the whole family has decided to sell to the high bidder, who will turn it into a resort community.
That is Clooney’s less pressing concern, though. His wife is in a coma from a boating accident. He is dealing with a troubled 10-year-old daughter (Amara Miller), and a 17-year-old daughter in a private school (Shailene Woodley) who had some sort of beef with her mother. Early on Clooney finds out the disagreement was over his now comatose wife’s philandering.
Most of the film deals with Clooney tracking down the man who was sleeping with his wife. He turns out to be Matthew Lillard, who I remember mostly for playing the obnoxious kid in a series of bad teen films. Here he’s a real estate agent, and has a connection with the land sale. Will Clooney exact his revenge by blocking the sale?
I have a feeling that what appealed most to Payne about this project, which is adapted from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings (the script was co-written by Payne with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) is the sense of place. Hawaii is certainly a distinct place in America, which few of us have visited for more than a week at a time. The opening scenes, of poverty and despair on the streets of Hawaii, include a voiceover by Clooney wondering at the sanity of people who tell him he lives in paradise. From the film you can get the sense of how life goes a little slower there–shoes are optional, and baseball caps and flowered shirts are formal wear. As Clooney says, “Very important people look like bums and stunt men.”
Beyond that, The Descendants also has a keen sense of betrayal, as Clooney and Woodley are both forced to be angry with a woman who can not defend herself. Clooney calls himself the “backup parent,” and seems at a loss how to deal with his kids. Woodley, who is sensational as a teenager burning with rage, bonds with her father over finding Lillard, as if they were on some kind of father-daughter scavenger hunt. The family that sleuths together, stays together, I guess.
But other parts of The Descendants fell flat for me. I didn’t understand the presence of Woodley’s boyfriend, Nick Krause, who seems to be channeling Spiccoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. A subplot involving Robert Forster as Clooney’s tough father-in-law also didn’t work. I did like a late appearance by Judy Greer, who gives the film a lift.
On the face of it, The Descendants is a good movie, it just isn’t great. I think I was supposed to care more about these people than I did. Clooney, who shows more vulnerability than he ever has before, and may pick up an Oscar for his effortm (have we ever seen Clooney cry before?) is riveting, but I couldn’t feel myself in his shoes. Maybe that’s because he’s hardly ever wearing them.
My grade for The Descendants: B+