Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash (screenplay), Kaui Hart Hemmings (novel)
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller and Nick Krause
Snap reactions and the surprised double-take have always been two important tools in George Clooney’s acting kit. Alexander Payne is noted as a director for having actors explore realms outside of that familiar skill set. Perhaps most infamously, Payne stripped Jack Nicholson of his raised eyebrows and charisma in About Schmidt and had the actor play a shy, desperate man. It’s one of his best performances.
In The Descendants, Payne has Clooney blend in. His washed-out mess of hair and beach bum attire look misplaced and familiar at the same time. Emerging from that sly, smirky facade is an actor capable of true grit.
Payne’s films are never as tragic as they could be, though, so that gravitas actually comes with laughs too. In fact, Payne must join the ranks of directors like Todd Solondz for his ability to balance the humor/heartbreak tightrope so effortlessly. We also learn about the family dynamic in his latest movie naturally, as Matt King (Clooney) travels around with his two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) to tell their close friends and family that his wife and their mother will soon be unplugged from life support.
With scenes that range from the comic (Robert Forrester punching a boyfriend in the face) to the tragic (the countless tears when people hear the news) and of course that in between, The Descendants sadly comes and goes without leaving the impact that it could. Matt learns his wife was cheating on him, and he decides to pack up his daughters and the blackeyed, dimwitted boyfriend (Nik Krause) and find the guy.
The entirety of the film takes place in Hawaii, so while technically most of it could count as a road movie, they are simply island hopping. Mystery is left out of the narrative equation, mostly because inevitability is the point. We’re told early on who this man is they’re looking for; we know that the mother will die.
Certainty is something that these characters, Matt in particular, has to grapple with. He is already vastly wealthy, but frugle with his money. There’s a big deal coming up where he must decide for his whole extended family whether or not to sell a prime 25 acre parcel of land that they have inherited and that he is the trustee of. Like everything else, it’s just dropped in his lap for no reason other than that in Payne’s universe, things bad or good just simply happen. The deal is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Since he is already rich, though, the decision doesn’t really weigh on him until he realizes it’s his only source of power.
Matt is someone with little to no power in his family life. He cannot stop his daughters from cussing or misbehaving at school, nor does he banish the annoying boyfriend Sid from the gathering when he has obviously overstayed his welcome. That kind of passivity is familiar to those who’ve seen About Schmidt or Sideways. Payne’s protagonists simmer until they boil over. Here, though, he has fused seamlessly with the Hawaiian lifestyle. Matt’s simmer never really reaches the level of the characters from those other two films.
The Descendants never achieves the level of mastery that Payne did in Sideways, either. It is a decidedly mature and thoughtful work, to be sure, but it feels mandatorily emotional instead of genuinely so. Matt King is the only character who should feel that way, and Payne should’ve taken more of an outsider’s perspective to achieve the kind of gravity the script demands. Todd Solondz maintains a beautiful empathy while remaining merely a visitor in Life During Wartime, a film that overshadows this one in almost every way.
Payne is attempting to make us a traveler with the King family as their father tries to locate the man his wife was sleeping with not so he can beat him up, but so he can tell him to go visit the woman he was having sex with one last time. The film’s best scene finds him and his oldest daughter Alexandra (Woodley) descending upon the beach house that that lover (Matthew Lillard) and his family are staying at. When the two of them have him alone they reveal the somber news, and Lillard’s face molds effortlessly between his tacked-on real estate smirk and a crumpled mess of sadness when his wife isn’t looking.
That is the kind of scene that Payne does so well, and there are not enough of them. He seems to have bonded almost too well with the Hawaiian scenery. Though its natural beauty is the only light in the often bleak encounters, the “Trouble in Paradise” motif feels beaten to death before the movie reaches the halfway point.
The Descendants picks up midway through, though. When the script starts empathizing with his daughters instead of vilifying them, Clooney and the two young actresses (Woodley in particular) create a terrific family dynamic. As he balances what to tell them and what not to tell them, we get a sense of a man who is also grappling with what he wants to admit to himself. It’s that kind of tragic undercurrent that gives The Descendants its gravity even after it falls short.