There’s at least one film every awards season that practically glows with critical praise, collecting trophies and accolades and acclaim all to and fro and ending up on countless year-end “Best Of” lists — despite the fact that it doesn’t deserve even half of all that fuss. Alexander Payne’s inevitable though undeserving Oscar contender, The Descendants, is that film for this year.
Matt King (George Clooney) is one of those guys who seems to have it all and yet is haunted by a seemingly unwarranted melancholy. He lives in Hawaii (which, predictably, sometimes looks a bit drab through Payne’s eyes), has a successful career as a lawyer and owns 25,000 acres of prime Hawaiian land that’s been passed down through several generations of his family. However, Matt soon experiences some tangible reasons for being such a sad sack beach bum: his land is about to be auctioned off so someone can build a golf course… and his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), has fallen into a coma after being thrown from a motorboat.
Matt and Elizabeth didn’t get along very well, so he’s now on that most familiar of redemption-seeking journeys: one fueled by a sudden sense of guilt and mortality. This career “back-up parent” now has to contend front and center with his estranged daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley, who steals the movie from Clooney and even the occasionally breathtaking Hawaiian scenery). Matt gives it his best shot in becoming a responsible dad, though his efforts are constantly sneered at by his daughters, who don’t really know this strange man who has suddenly taken an interest in — and is now meddling with — their lives.
And then comes the ultra-crisis that, rather ironically, ends up being the first step in really bringing this family together. Alex tells Matt that Elizabeth was having an affair with a real estate agent, Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), a revelation that prompts a family road trip to Speer’s vacation home in Kauai, where Matt plans to confront his “replacement.” Along for the ride is Alex’s surfer dude boyfriend, Sid (Nick Krause), the film’s Shakespearean fool who ends up providing much of the film’s most insightful observations (and biggest laughs).
The Descendants (maybe) could’ve been a great film, but its two biggest weaknesses end up being what should’ve been its greatest strengths: Clooney and Payne. Clooney is a good actor (in fact, he might indeed be a great actor), but he’s become an even greater movie star — we’ve come to know him so much as the rich, handsome celebrity who sleeps with hot younger women and gives to charity and always greets his public with a bemused and somewhat smart-alecky smile that it’s become harder to see him as anything else. And while he doesn’t necessarily have any “control” over that, he does seem to be more aware of his own stature in the public eye than ever — Clooney never completely loses himself in a performance, and certainly not in a character whom we’re supposed to believe was made a cuckold by way of Matthew Lillard. It’s like seeing Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart — there she is, giving it her all as she desperately searches for her journalist husband who’s gone missing in Pakistan, but you can just sense the makeup team just out of frame, holding their breath until Michael Winterbottom calls “Cut!” so they can swoop in and touch up her eye shadow.
Meanwhile, Alexander Payne seems to have gotten a little soft — and, I daresay, lazy. It’s been seven years since the amazing Sideways, and the time in-between has taken a little of the fight out of the usually passionate director. Payne has always fancied himself a “comical tragedian,” a storyteller whose films can sway back and forth between uproarious satire and scathingly honest observations about the frailty of the human condition with skill and confidence (with a few “shock moments” thrown in to keep you on your toes — remember Kathy Bates and the hot tub in About Schmidt?), but his usual knack for creating and maintaining a unique tone and atmosphere is a bit off with The Descendants. It’s often entertaining enough, with the occasional flash of true moviemaking brilliance and some admittedly terrific acting moments (mostly from Woodley), but hardly any of it rings true.
It’s ultimately, and unfortunately, a major disappointment. And yet, The Descendants will reap the awards and the attention, though if only because, since it comes from Alexander Payne and George Clooney, two artists of renowned merit and taste, we feel obliged to acknowledge it with the highest praise.