George Clooney and Shailene Woodley in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants

The Descendants is a slickly made, surface-level adult button-pusher with an interesting setup, some terrific performances and several emotionally wrenching scenes, but the real and intense feelings upon which it is built struggle constantly against a sitcom-y glibness and a self-satisfied literary tone that probably works much better on the page than it does on the screen.

George Clooney plays Matt King, a not-altogether-engaged father of two whose slowly deteriorating marriage is put into crisis mode when a boating accident leaves his wife in a coma. As Matt tries fruitlessly to re-bond with his teen and tween daughters, he’s hit with an additional emotional bomb: he learns his wife had been cheating on him. His marriage has reached a crisis point, ironically at the exact moment when nothing can really be done about it.

As his wife’s health fails, Matt not only faces the loss of his future, but her infidelity has robbed him of even the past he thought he had. Worst of all, he’s basically helpless. He can rage at her (and he does in a particularly moving scene), but she is effectively already lost to him. The only avenue left to Matt is to look inside himself to see what went wrong, to maybe make some late-life repairs and to hopefully patch together some kind of future with his daughters if it’s not already too late.

As Matt, Clooney is terrific. He’s starting to show that lived-in, almost frail look of a man around 50 years old and it adds to his character’s air of vulnerability. This is also one of Clooney’s most emotionally naked performances. Ordinarily so smooth and confident, it’s always kind of shocking when he lets down his guard and The Descendants gets a lot of mileage out of that.

Pretty Shailene Woodley (TV’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager) is also excellent as Alexandra, Matt’s difficult college freshman of a daughter. She captures that weird time in life where you’re handed the rights and responsibilities of an adult, but you still have a lot of the personality of a teenager.  She’s a handful, but she’s relatable and real. She has as many emotional hurdles to jump in this situation as her father yet she has less wisdom and experience to fall back on.

Where The Descendants falls down is in tone. It too often goes for an easy laugh instead of giving the emotions time to breathe. Particularly unappealing are Scottie (Amara Miller), Matt’s smart-assed younger daughter and Sid (Nick Krause), the doofus boyfriend of Alexandra. The actors are fine, but the characters are stamped from an off-putting sitcom template and the comic relief they provide is mostly unwelcome. Also, many of the situations and some of the side characters have a novelistic, pre-written quality. They feel constructed for effect rather than carved from real experience and they distance the audience from the feelings inherent in the story.

There’s already a certain smugness to Alexander Payne’s films – particularly About Schmidt which is also unpleasantly mean-spirited – but Schmidt and especially Sideways at least travel honestly felt, emotionally grounded terrain. With The Descendants though, it’s as if Payne intellectually grasps the strong emotions in Kaui Hart Hemmings’ debut novel without ever fully internalizing them. While his eagerness to go for a laugh keeps The Descendants from bogging down in sentimentality, the humor too often tramples the more heartfelt scenes which are the film’s main strength and which deserve their own space.

While the moments with Matt’s personal life and especially his relationship with Alexandra are excellent, less successful is an important subplot involving a chunk of Hawaiian coast that has been handed down through Matt’s family over the years. As the executor of his father’s estate, Matt has to work out with his extended family whether to sell to a local developer or an off-Island conglomerate. The decision is complicated by the wrinkles in Matt’s personal life (in a predictable plot contrivance) and the whole drama is inevitably used as a measure of whether Matt has grown personally or not, but it really isn’t all that interesting on its own and it detracts from the more intimate aspects of the story which are where the film really shines.

While The Descendants is ultimately too slick by half and is as calculated and predictable as a windup toy, it is also undeniably moving more often than not and some of the humor manages to land cleanly. If you don’t think about it too much and you take the often intense emotions as they’re presented to you at face value, it just might grab you and hold on to you. On the other hand, you might find the glibness kind of appalling if you’re unable to get inside its emotional bubble. Either way, you might want to bring kleenex.


6 Responses to “The Descendants (2011)”

  1. Ordinarily so smooth and confident, it’s always kind of shocking when he lets down his guard …

    And that is exactly what made his performance in Michael Clayton work so well.

    Good review. A lot of what you’re saying here about the emotional stuff being pitted against a slick, sit-com sheen is kind of what I got when I saw the trailer for this.

  2. Yes Michael Clayton and Syrianna too. He wasn’t emotionally vulnerable so much in the latter, but there was a point (as in Clayton) where he felt like a guy who did not have his shit together and it was unsettling.

    Emotionally though, this is his most revealing performance since Solaris which everyone hated but is great.

    If the trailer put you off at all, you might struggle with it like I did, but having said that I should emphasize more that there was a lot to like here. Even though when it was all over I felt kind of cheated, in the moment there was much to like.

  3. “Emotionally though, this is his most revealing performance since Solaris which everyone hated but is great.”

    I’ve haven’t always been a fan of Clooney in his dramatic roles but I loved Solaris and he was excellent within it.

  4. I think if you compare Soderbergh’s Solaris to Tarkovsky’s you’re just asking for trouble. To me they’re different movies.

  5. Well, I’m happy I got the real scoop on this film now, as I was beginning to believe much of the advance hype. But my track record with Clooney films is spotty, and I remember how disappointed I was with UP IN THE AIR. I see however, that you feel there are some aspects here worth promoting.

  6. critics seem to really be going for this one and I think it’s Fox Searchlight’s big Oscar pony, but I was a little disappointed as you can see.

    I don’t think I was clear enough in the review that I found a lot to like in it, it just didn’t gel for me as a whole and wound up leaving kind of a bad taste in my mouth.

    I think it opens today in NY and LA, so give it a shot and come back and tell me if I’m just being grouchy

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