The Descendants is a head-scratcher
It’s not particularly enjoyable approaching a film long after everyone (it seems) has already written about it, some lauding it for every imaginable aspect, some denigrating it for the same. Alexander Payne’s latest, The Descendants, bowed at Telluride in September to raves, generating Oscar buzz for its lead, George Clooney (he already has a Golden Globe and a Critics Choice Award in hand) and even for the big prize itself. This was encouraging news to me, considering that I’m a fan of Payne’s and a pairing with Clooney sounded ideal. This director has quite a track record: Citizen Ruth (1996) is bitingly funny, satirizing the bloated rhetoric of both the Christian Right and the pro-choice proponents, all with a tragic, hapless woman (a pitch-perfect Laura Dern) at the center of whirlwind agenda-pushing. Election (1999) is, again, bitingly funny, satirizing the sweep of the political arena through the lens of a middle-America high-school. Suburban dysfunction has rarely looked so blandly pathetic, thanks to Matthew Broderick’s can’t-catch-a-break Jim McAllister, and Reese Witherspoon gives a killer comedic performance. About Schmidt (2002) similarly captures the rhythms of suburban malaise before steering its protagonist (a refreshingly subtle Jack Nicholson) on a road trip that doesn’t quite end as he’d hoped. It’s a rather bleak piece of work, but one that nevertheless arrives at some sort of catharsis. Sideways (2004) is, for me, his best, although it took a few viewings for it to settle in. Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church are chemistry incarnate; the sun-baked montages are a thing of beauty; the dialogue is often laugh-out-loud funny; and Miles, the pathetic figure at its center, somehow speaks to a certain strain of writer-types that feel they’ll never make it. And, indeed, he speaks to a broader audience as well (of a piece with Payne’s earlier portraits of dream-crushing suburbia): divorced, alcoholic, depressed, ambitions thwarted, take your pick. As you might guess, you’re not likely to walk away from a Payne film in the sunniest of moods, especially Sideways, despite what the occasionally broad humor and the grape-lined locales might tease. When I had heard, then, that The Descendants was able to achieve both honesty and optimism, I began counting down the days (make that months).
Well, I have to say that I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. I really wanted to love this movie, even though critics that I respect have been less than favorable. But it feels like such a non-event to me, and I don’t think that’s all because it’s scooping up awards. The Descendants comes off as kind of flat, borderline lazy filmmaking; very little stands out as especially noteworthy. The plot could have been a promising set-up for a character-driven domestic drama that never becomes too dark, but what we have is more like a series of vignettes that are so schematically, preciously serio-comic that I didn’t care all that much: Clooney and daughter go to retrieve troubled (or so the dialogue keeps telling us) older daughter; Clooney and daughters (and a tag-along boyfriend) go to advise loved-ones to pay their respects to Clooney’s soon-to-be-deceased wife (she’s comatose from a boating accident); after hearing that his wife had cheated on him, Clooney and gang take another trip to visit the culprit, ostensibly to break the news but actually to catch the look on his face and utter some choice words. Meanwhile, Clooney’s Matt King is struggling over whether he should sell his land and make a fortune or preserve it for the benefit of those green-loving, traffic-loathing Hawaiians. This sub-plot entails a development that is rather contrived and seems to serve little thematic purpose. And the opening voice-over is among the worst I’ve ever heard: obviously written, lifelessly delivered, crammed with exposition, and altogether unnecessary. So I can’t say that I loved The Descendants, Payne’s weakest film to date. Truth be told, I don’t think I even liked it…my response was just sort of…nonexistent.
So this film is a head-scratcher for me, not because it leaves you with a lot to ponder but because it leaves you with the opposite. There are no complex characterizations here, no deeply felt narrative journeys, no real lessons learned even if the pat ending suggests otherwise. It adds a lumbering pace, a belabored theme, and a quick-sketch character style onto a cloying foundation, and you’re not going to gain sustenance from that, even if you walk out of the theater feeling more manipulatively hopeful that you did out of Sideways. The performances are good…Clooney is excellent, albeit not nearly revelatory, in an un-Clooney-like role, but shedding a charming persona and navigating the rhythms of a discomfited everyman doesn’t make you a genius; it makes you a good actor. And Clooney certainly is, although I’m perplexed as to why standard-issue variation is somehow all of a sudden worthy of a second Oscar. Shailene Woodley makes a genuine impression here, despite being somewhat sidelined after her first few scenes. She’s natural, perceptive, and warm, illustrating that you shouldn’t judge a young actor based on his or her filmography (I’m talking to those who don’t consider “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” to be quality training-ground). A more-than-game ensemble, however, can’t make up for sub-par work elsewhere. This viewer would welcome the return of a more cynical Payne.