Alexander Payne (director, co-writer, producer) is one of my favorite filmmakers working today. I loved Sideways (2004) and Election (1999) and also liked About Schmidt (2002). I have been waiting patiently for this movie to come to Watertown based on its accolades, positive reviews and my respect for Payne as a filmmaker. I am disappointed.
Set in Hawaii, The Descendants stars George Clooney (Oscar Frontrunner) as Matt King, a workaholic lawyer who is head of a family trust that owns some extremely valuable undeveloped coastal land on the island of Kauai. When Matt’s wife is severely injured and incapacitated by a coma in a motor boat accident, Matt most face a reckoning. He is estranged from his unruly daughters, Scottie, aged 10, (Amara Miller) and Alex 17, (Shailene Woodley) and suddenly must be the parent he never was before. Soon after being thrust into active parenthood, Matt’s wife’s condition goes from critical to terminal and he learns of his wife’s infidelity. Faced with the knowledge that his wife will soon die, caring for his daughters, the anger he feels about his wife’s affair and the responsibility of selling the land that has been in his family for over 150 years; Matt has a lot on his plate.
With so much going on, The Descendants moves along nicely, despite some scenes that should feel tenser and more urgent feeling flat, unfinished or just okay. Clooney, who is likely to win the Oscar for this film is a good actor and he is good in this film, but his characterization isn’t specific enough and his choices aren’t particularly inventive or defining. Clooney does a lot with his eyes, and I loved him in Up in the Air. However there was something more complex and likeable about his character in that film. He is a subtle actor who can play ambivalence vividly, but The Descendents lacks “a ha” moment that would help us understand his character better and crystallize his vagueness.
One thing that I have loved about Alexander Payne’s characters in the past is there complexity. I am thinking particularly of Milo (Paul Giametti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) in Sideways. They made some bad choices and had huge flaws but also had great qualities and were interesting and bold without being caricatures. This vivid characterization seems to be lacking in The Descendants. Even the two daughters, who appear to be kids from hell at the beginning, become magically better behaved and grounded, without any visible progress. Ambiguity and duality are lacking from the tone. His other films had a lot more humor. This film, although humorous in some parts, feels so much like a drama that we don’t laugh even when there are places to do so. Yes the subject matter is much heavier, but Payne has always been known for humor that comes from human drama. Too often scenes are one note and without subtext and the dialogue on the nose. Some of the scenes near the end of the film are almost embarrassing in their obviousness and heavy handedness. Furthermore it is shockingly predictable. Where is the Alexander Payne I love?
I am a bit perplexed as to why this film is doing so well in the end of year movie awards. It is a good film, shot in beautiful locations with good actors, but it isn’t a great film. For me it lacks the resonance that a best picture Oscar winner should have. Perhaps it is doing so well because there are so few films being made about real people with real problems. For this I am grateful, and it should be commended for its honesty. However, it too often feels like a made for TV movie with R rated dialogue and no surprises, subtext or complexity. By the way, the foul language often feels inserted to show just how bad the kids are.
For best picture I prefer Hugo (gorgeous and moving fable) or The Help (enormously entertaining and superbly acted). Then again, I am not a member of “The Academy.”