Film Review – The Descendants
I think most Alexander Payne movies are good, but I have a hard time talking myself into liking them. In fact, the better they are, the less I enjoy them. I can see that Sideways is a good movie, but I find everyone in it repellant, and there is no emotional resonance for me. Election is the same way; it’s a really well made film, and I don’t care about the characters at all. I appreciate that Payne is a real director who makes films for adults who like to think about things, but appreciation and enjoyment are not the same thing. His new film, The Descendants, is pretty flawed, but I was able to connect to this film in a way that I never have with any of his others.
The Descendants is the story of Oahu lawyer Matt King (George Clooney), whose wife Elizabeth is in a coma after a serious boating accident. He has two daughters: Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), a teen who resides in a boarding school for troubled youth on the Big Island, and Scottie (Amara Miller), who seems to be handling her mother’s situation by acting out in school. Matt has always been the back-up parent and has sense enough to realize he can’t handle all of this by himself, so he brings Alexandra back from the Big Island to help out with Scottie.
In addition to dealing with his wife’s coma and trying to reconnect with his daughters, Matt has two other issues that he has to deal with. One is a parcel of pristine untouched land on Kauai that has been in his family for generations. He is the trustee for the land and must make a decision regarding whom to sell the land to; he has a large extended family, many of whom would love to receive a large windfall of cash. His other major issue comes to light when Alexandra lets him know that his wife was having an affair before her accident. She caught her mother with another man and confronted her about it, causing a rift between the two of them. Matt would like to meet his wife’s lover (Matthew Lillard), ostensibly to let the man know about Elizabeth’s status, but really he wants the chance to ask questions of the only person still capable of answering them.
I spent the first third of this movie unable to engage with any of the characters and wanting it to be over, but Payne opens his characters up slowly, and eventually I was able to empathize with them. For some reason, he starts off with George Clooney narrating the set-up to this story, and I feel it is a mistake. Narration can be very tricky in a film; it can bring the audience in closer or it can help keep them at arm’s length. By letting Matt tell us what is in his head immediately, there is no mystery for the audience; we are not allowed to unravel what is going on through the things we see on the screen. We are told, not shown, and our involvement in the story gets smaller because we are forced to project less of ourselves into figuring out what is going on. Thankfully, the narration drops off fairly quickly.
Payne also prevents the audience from identifying with his characters through his use of humor. George Clooney has demonstrated his ability for slapstick in the Coen brothers work he has done, and when it shows up here, it feels as though Payne spliced in scenes from another movie. There are two scenes with Matt running, and both times Clooney’s facial expression and posture are so ridiculous that I was taken out of the rhythm of the film and set outside the story. Every time that happened, I had to fight my way back in. I don’t mind working while engaging with a film, but it shouldn’t be so hard to stay in the world the director would like me to inhabit. Most of the rest of the humor worked better, and avoided some of the mean-spiritedness that mars other Payne movies for me. Some of the jokes are painful, but they hurt because sometimes awful situations just can’t help being funny. Those are the most human and relatable moments in the movie.
For the most part, I was won over by the end of the story. It is well told, and I was able, with a little work, to enter this world and empathize with what was going on. Most of the plot threads wrap up, if not nicely, at least logically. Except for the resolution of the Kauai land sale. It feels forced because it seems as if the decision should come from all the things Matt’s learned in the rest of the film, except none of the reasons he gives for his decision have anything to do with anything else that has happened. In fact, Payne could have taken out that whole plotline, and nothing with the rest of the movie would have changed except to shorten the film and make it tighter. Which is usually a good thing. But it’s not so horrible as to ruin the whole movie. In the end, The Descendants is a moving and funny film about a family dealing with grief and trying to make themselves more of a family rather than less.
Final Grade: B+