George Clooney is an interesting A-List star actor. With his matinee idol looks and his incredible charm, he could have easily slummed into a series of lazy, cash-grabbing roles. (And occasionally does.) Instead, he’s mostly used his pull and talent to make smaller, quirkier films, occasionally winning awards along the way.
The latest thing he’s done is “The Descendents.” Based off a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the film roots itself in the rich history of Hawaii. The first thing it does is remind viewers that Hawaii isn’t all beaches and vacation spots. There are cities, full of miserable people, in miserable nine-to-five jobs. From there, the story focuses on Matt King, a man with problems. His wife is in a coma and he just recently discovered that she was cheating on him at the time of her accident. He has a tumultuous relationship with both of his daughters, rebellious teenager Alex and quirky ten year old Scottie. On top of all of this, he finds himself the sole head of a family trustee group, stretching back to the very origins of the island as a part of the United States, deciding whither or not to sell a piece of untouched Hawaii land. All of this is sturdy ground to build a film on, dramatic, comedic, or otherwise.
It’s not new territory for director Alexander Payne. The film frequently plays like a less-funny version of Payne’s “About Schmit.” “Less-funny” is an important distinction, since “About Schmit” was a frequently hilarious but also deeply sad film all about regret and the fear that life is meaningless. Despite being advertised as a comedy, “The Descendents” is a bit of a drag. Clooney’s Matt King is a sad-sack, listless man, full of impotent rage, cracking under the weight of his responsibilities. His oldest daughter is a brat, swearing, drinking, challenging him constantly, and even dragging her clueless male friend along on family duties. Younger Scottie is undeniably weird. Honestly, the way little Amanda Miller plays it, you wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the girl grows up to be a serial killer.
All of this is established even before we find out that his comatose, dying wife was screwing around on them. At this point, a deeply suppressed, barely contained anger works its way into the film. The movie attempts to sum up all the grief, hurt, and betrayal such a scenario would create. While it does occasionally succeed, these heavy themes end up dragging the film down. Far too much of the film’s run time is composed of very sad people not being allowed to be very sad. “The Descendents” probably should have been about that emotional repression. Instead, it just lets that stuff slide off its back, not wanting to distract from the real story of a father getting back in touch with his estranged daughters, an idea no other screenwriter has ever had in the history of Hollywood, ever.
It’s really not until the end of the movie, when Clooney finally meets up with the man responsible for cuckolding him, that things pick up some. The man in question has a family himself, a very happy one, and a hugely successful business. (One that ties into the mostly tenuous land-deal subplot.) Here the movie finally addresses the messed-up storm of emotions its story has raised, answering some of it with a satisfying, mature ambiguity. There’s a hint of romance between Clooney and the man’s wife, played by an underutilized Judy Greer. Ultimately, it’s Greer who sets up the deeply needed, much appreciated catharsis that drives this middling film to its far-better conclusion.
None of the faults lie with the cast. Clooney is, as always, excellent, really showing off the wrinkles in his face and happily cracking up his movie-star facade. Shailene Woodley is especially good as the oldest daughter. Despite the character being unlikable, Woodley plays her as a real firecracker, someone who doesn’t spare the words or emotions that everyone else in the film contains. I’m surprised she didn’t receive an Oscar nomination. Robert Forster has a very funny supporting role as Clooney’s father-in-law. Like his granddaughter, he doesn’t suffers fools and let’s everybody known when he doesn’t like the cut of their jib. His interaction with clueless stoner Sid provides some of the film’s all-too-few laughs. You can’t even blame director Payne, who shoots the movie with an assured hand, letting the gorgeous Hawaiian landscape speak for itself. Similarly, the Hawaiian influenced score helpfully speaks to the emotional side of the movie, went it’s allowed.
Nope, it’s the script, written by Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim “Lean, Mean, Dean-ing Machine” Rash. The movie stuffs Clooney’s mouth with an unnecessary, exposition-heavy voiceover, which brings to mind Harrison Ford’s laconic narration in the theatrical cut of “Blade Runner.” Luckily, that’s dropped before the movie is over. What isn’t dropped is the land trust subplot which, generally, adds nothing to the film, other then giving Beau Bridges a reason to show up. The additional story further drags down an already drag-y film. Moreover, it provides an easy, loaded precursor to the story’s inner-thoughts. You know that Clooney’s decision on what to do with the land will tie in neatly with whither or not he forgives his wife for her indiscretions. So, “The Descendents” is mediocre material propped up by an excellent class and pretty direction. Something that can be sadly said for far too much of the Oscar bait out there. (6/10)