The Descendants (2011)

Nothing just happens!

In the seven years between Sideways and The Descendants, Alexander Payne hit the directorial equivalent of writers block. He married Sandra Oh and noodled on Downsizing scripts and storyboards for a few years. Finally he made something, and it feels distinctly like a movie by someone who wasn’t sure what he wanted to make.

There are a lot of small- and medium-sized problems with The Descendants, and one very big one: George Clooney. Why his performance garnered so many laurels, I’m not sure. Maybe critics just had muscle memory for praising Payne’s ability to coax great performances from his stars (he was indeed four-for-four prior to this, and that allows you to choose either Reese Witherspoon or Matthew Broderick as the lead of Election). I at least get why he was cast: Matt King is supposed to be someone who looks like the complete package from the outside. But Clooney is unwilling or unable to play King as a sad sack stuck in a state of mind-boggling irony: about to become ridiculously wealthy, but also about to lose his wife to injuries from an accident he’s arguably a little bit responsible for. What’s more, discovering she had a long-term affair with a bozo real estate agent. Compare the flat, linear, surprisingly unfunny performance of Clooney with what Paul Giamatti did in Sideways and, shit, why did Payne just not cast Giamatti again? I got so mad as I was watching, over and over, wondering what a better actor could have done with these scenes — what complicated emotions this dramatically rich scenario could have been colored with.

The next-biggest problem, right on the line between “medium” and “big” is how lazily expository the opening act narration is. Good voice-over does a whole lot more than give us a bulleted list of plot elements we’re supposed to know. It should illuminate characters and  (Think, damn it, of Tammy and Paul’s narration in Election.) The Descendants never rises above dry fact conveyance, setting a boring-ass tone that never quite lifts.

This is Payne’s first feature film without his frequent co-writer Jim Taylor. Taylor had been so entwined in Payne’s work that it was always hard to say what exactly his contributions were, but The Descendants gives us some hints: This is a much less flavorful and barbed script that could have benefited from some punch-up from a second voice.

Luckily, there’s good stuff on the fringes, enough to like that I feel a little bit guilty giving this film a thumbs down: Many of the secondary performances are good, and a couple are great. Judy Greer hits a home run in two short scenes. Even more impressive, Shailene Woodley brings remarkable life to a thinly written character as Clooney’s daughter. She’s the one I would have given an Oscar nomination to.

I also have a rule of thumb to mark a movie up a notch if it’s shot on location in somewhere gorgeous where I wish I was, but The Descendants never quite invited me to hop into the screen the way that Forgetting Sarah Marshall does. Still, this is some damn beautiful Hawaii footage.

It’s buoyed to watchability on the premise alone; Payne’s instincts on complicated, contradictory emotions have not left him. But it’s still ultimately a failure for just how much potential it wastes, and it’s taking some restraint not to mark the movie down even more. There are some funny moments and some tearjerking ones, but The Descendants doesn’t hold together. The themes are too directly lampshaded. Nothing hops off the screen and smacks you across the face. No gut-punch jerks in tone that Payne is so damn good at most of the time. Just a hazy sort of malaise (one he wouldn’t fully break until 2023). Bummer.

Is It Good?

Nearly Good (4/8)

Follow Dan on Letterboxd or Twitter. Join the Discord for updates and discussion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *