What to say about “The Descendants?” Alexander Payne’s latest feature is one of the most languidly inoffensive humanist dramas I’ve ever seen. I haven’t been so confused as to how such a glib film could garner massive Oscar buzz since “Crash,” but unlike that 2005 race relations misstep, you won’t find me getting all worked up about “The Descendants.” The film has its particular virtues and its mistakes, but all of them feel decidedly minor: there are no bold performances here, no incisive writing, no stylish flourishes. Simply a pleasant story about a grieving man reconciling with his troubled daughters, a gentle family drama.
At the center of the family in question is Matt King (George Clooney), a well-to-do lawyer in Hawaii whose wife has fallen into a coma after a motor boating accident. Always “the back-up parent” (in his own words), Matt is now forced to take a more hands-on approach in raising his two daughters. This is not a simple task, as 10-year old Scottie (Amara Miller) lashes out in bizarre bouts of bullying and boorishness, and 17-year old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) is rebelling in typical teenaged fashion with drugs and alcohol. Several characters mention that Alex’s wild side is reminiscent of her mother, a detail that doesn’t really get resolved in any satisfactory manner, which is a shame considering the past conflict between Alex and her mother is what sets the main plot in motion.
Urging Alex to “grow up” and move beyond whatever argument she had with her mom, Matt is shocked to be informed that his wife was, in fact, cheating on him. The Kings end up on a sort of island-hopping adventure as they go around informing various friends and family of the accident while simultaneously searching for the man that made Matt a cuckold.
This is a good scenario to provide some witty, observational humor, and there are certainly moments of amusingly brutal honesty here. Surrounding the principal trio are a series of vivid supporting characters, who breathe fresh life into “The Descendants” whenever Alex and Scottie begin to grow stale (while both daughters are initially reckless and uncontrolled, they fall back into line much too quickly, particularly Alex). The Kings are accompanied by a surfer-stoner type named Sid (Nick Krause), who we assume to be Alex’s boyfriend, although if so the two are remarkably chaste. The best moment in the entire film is actually between the doltish Sid and Scott (Robert Forster), Matt’s prickly, stand-offish father-in-law. Sid and Scott feel the most like true Payne creations, skating the edge of sympathy with their blackly humorous behavior in moments of harsh reality.
It’s more interactions like this one that you wish would “The Descendants” would provide, considering Payne’s past filmography. While Matt King is much the same kind of sad, vaguely adrift male-in-crisis as Matthew Broderick in “Election,” Jack Nicholson in “About Schmidt” or Paul Giamatti in “Sideways,” Matt is so overwhelmingly designed to garner audience sympathy that the film loses the same jagged edge of those earlier films. The double whammy of his wife’s accident followed by her infidelity immediately lays claim to what pity we have for an aristocrat (did I mention that Matt and his family own a gigantic swath of pristine Hawaiian land, which they are about to sell for untold millions?), and worse, the coma of course prevents the wife from ever presenting her perspective on things. We feel sorry for Matt, because we are never given any alternative. And then there is the whole George Clooney thing to consider. Many are calling this the best performance of Clooney’s career, and I would not put up too strong of an argument (though “The American” is still his high point, in my book), but I object to any notion that Matt King is somehow an atypical Clooney role: the mega-star displays here the same kind of pathos mixed with self-effacing charm that he demonstrated in “Michael Clayton” and “Up in the Air.” While marginal characters like Scott or Matt’s Cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges, sounding eerily like his brother Jeff) or even Julie (Judy Greer), the perky wife of Matt’s romantic rival, are all painted with more complexity, the center of “The Descendants” remains altogether agreeable.
This is the first film that Payne co-wrote with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (Dean Pelton of “Community”) rather than usual collaborator Jim Taylor, and I think there are still hiccups in this team’s creative process. The voice-over narration by Matt that opens the film is exceedingly painful in its bash-you-over-the-head explication of some of the film’s major themes and general info dumping; this device is made all the worse because it’s inconsistent, as the voice-over completely disappears within a half hour. And if there was a point to the whole “selling the family land” side plot, it eluded me; I suppose it made the point that family history is ultimately more important than family money, but good lord, how more predictable can you get than that? Ultimately it only serves to needlessly ennoble Matt even beyond the high regard we already have of him.
This review probably is beginning to sound overly harsh because I am left with little recourse but to nitpick. “The Descendants” is emotionally manipulative, but so harmlessly so that I can find little more than mild frustration to throw at it. You won’t exactly regret your time in the theater, by any means; the main plot quietly flows from one scene to the next in amiable fashion, avoiding stereotyped twists in favor of quiet moments of delicate sentiment. But you won’t find yourself whatsoever challenged in this simple redemptive tale. As Guy Lodge of In Contention aptly described it, this is a film that bites off less than it can chew.
Now playing in theaters (look, I’ve finally caught up to relevant films that you can actually go see!)
Verdict: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars