Writer-director Alexander Payne’s big-screen return proves to be far less than the sum of its parts.
Despite winning an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Sideways in 2004, writer-director Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Election, Citizen Ruth) disappeared from the big screen. One or two (or more) detours later, Payne’s back on the big screen with The Descendants, an adaptation of Hawaii native Kaui Hart Hemmings’ 2008 novel.
With oft-nominated Oscar winner George Clooney stepping into the “middle-aged white man in existential crisis” role (a decade-long Payne specialty), a hard-working, hard-emoting talented cast, and a location rarely visited onscreen (TV’s Hawaii 5-0 excepted, of course), The Descendants has all the earmarks of Oscar-baiting, crowd-pleasing, middlebrow entertainment, but fails to deliver aesthetically, or intellectually, or emotionally.
Via redundant voiceover narration (dropped after 30 minutes for no discernible reason), we learn that Matt King (Clooney), the literal descendant of a Hawaiian king, actually princess, and a European-American missionary, faces a conundrum. A real-estate lawyer, King is also the sole trustee of the King family’s longstanding trust, 25,000 acres of unspoiled, untouched land. King’s similarly aged, personality-challenged, financially insecure cousins, Ralph (Matt Corboy), Hal (Matt Esecson), Milo (Michael Ontkean), Stan (Stanton Johnston), and Hugh (Beau Bridges) want King to sell the land to a Hawaiian-based real-estate developer and split the proceeds with the family. King’s world gets upturned when his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), slips into a coma after suffering a head injury in a motor-boating accident.
With hope exhausted and Elizabeth’s death imminent, King faces the prospect of raising his two daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), a rebellious teen exiled to a boarding school on another island, and Scottie (Amara Miller), a ten-year-old prone to obscenities and bullying classmates. A self-described “understudy” or “back-up parent,” King has to reconnect with his estranged daughters in between visits to his father-in-law, Scott Thorson (Robert Forster), and mutual friends. In a fit of anger, Alexandra reveals the source for her estranged, strained relationship with her mother: Elisabeth’s infidelity. The news sends King on an expedited journey through the five stages of grief (i.e., denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) first enumerated by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross more than four decades ago.
Unfortunately, The Descendants suffers from an amorphous, meandering structure that shuttles King, his daughters, and ultimately, the audience through an over-obvious, over-familiar family journey. King’s reconnection with his daughters and his reconciliation soon-to-be-deceased wife and her betrayal, primarily caused, not by any abusive or adulterous behavior on King’s part, but by inattention to his wife’s emotional and physical needs (a sin of omission certainly, but a sin nonetheless, if, of course, it’s a sin at all). Payne drowns out the rare moments of emotional honesty and authenticity The Descendants achieves with native Hawaiian music (e.g., Gabby Pahinui, Ray Kane, Keola Beamer).
Proving the law of diminishing returns applies to The Descendants, Payne attempts to wring laughs from Scottie’s foul mouth, presumably because few things in life, onscreen or off, are funnier than a preteen girl dropping obscenities she barely understands at the most inappropriate time or circumstances. When Scottie’s otherwise predisposed or inconveniently off-camera, Payne relies on warmed-over stoner humor, courtesy of Alexandra’s stoner boyfriend, Sid (Nick Krause), his father-in-law’s vulgar putdowns and brusque behavior, and, when all else fails, dry, deadpan humor centered on the awkwardness inherent in a major life-event, the loss of a family member.
For all its faults, and The Descendants is a film with many faults, Payne’s casting, from George Clooney as the hurried, harried King, to Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller as King’s daughters, to Judy Greer in the small, but pivotal role as Julie, the wife of Elisabeth’s lover, and Matthew Lillard as Brian, Elisabeth’s real-estate broker lover, are, one and all, uniformly excellent. It’s a pity then that Payne consistently lets his cast down, forcing them to deliver on-the-nose, subtext-revealing dialogue or over-emoting to guarantee moviegoers, critics, and, most importantly, Academy members thoroughly understand The Descendants‘ message or themes.
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