THE DESCENDANTS (2011)
Directed by Alexander Payne
Fox Searchlight, 115 mins. Rated R (language)
* * ½
The Descendants has garnered decent reviews, which we should interpret as still another sign of the shallow yield of 2011. In truth, it’s neither a good film, nor a bad one—merely an inconsequential one. It’s also a walk through for George Clooney, who looks rested, tanned, and unchallenged.
The film is set on Oahu and Kauai. Clooney plays Matt King, a big-time lawyer from an extended family that traces its ancestry to 19th century missionaries that came to Hawaii to civilize the natives. If you need to know more, consult Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes, a book that writer and director Alexander Payne seems to have cribbed in developing a back story on why the Kings own so much land. Matt King’s wife, Elizabeth, is involved in a boating accident that leaves her in a vegetative state, and overnight he must set aside his Type A personality and develop parenting skills to deal with his daughters: 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley).
Clooney is first seen wearing a Hawaiian print shirt and he either has a fleet of these, or he seldom changes it. Take that as a metaphor for how few surprises are in store in this script. Payne tries to interject a few twists—an impending development deal, Elizabeth’s secret affair, a resentful father-in-law, Scottie’s temper tantrums, Alex’s teen angst—but everything in this film is like standing on a seaside cliff and gazing into the distance: you can see what’s coming long before it arrives. Particularly lame is the role of Sid (Nick Krause) as Alex’s inappropriate boyfriend. He seems to be in the film to call people “dude” and offer some faux Hawaiian Falstaffian comic relief. It’s a silly role that serves little purpose but then again, much of the script is silly, including Matt’s very lame caper to discover and confront Elizabeth’s lover.
We never see Clooney perspire in this film and that too is a metaphor. He’s never Matt King; he’s Clooney being Clooney—smooth, confident, calm, and in control (even when the part calls for him to act as if he’s not). The guy’s wife is dying for heaven’s sake, and he can’t muster a tear until the end!? Alex is a little monster and all he can say is, “Hey! Watch your mouth.” Will Alex grow up? Will Matt learn to be a dad? What does your view from the cliff tell you?
Payne has directed truly snarky films such as Election (1999) and Sideways (2004), but his script for The Descendants is lost in a sea of sentimentality and forced redemption. The kids don’t act like real kids, Clooney doesn’t act like he’s really anguished, and everything else in the film—except Judy Geer’s small role as a cuckolded wife—seems contrived. Label The Descendants a Terms of Endearment film: one that pulls at the heartstrings and might induce a sniffle or two. Once you think about it, though, you’ll be embarrassed that you broke out the Kleenex box. It’s 115 minutes of diversion—nothing less and certainly nothing more. Number me among those who want to see Clooney stretch himself; we know he can channel Cary Grant, but can he do anything else?