Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Descendants

Alexander Payne's The Descendants arrives laden with early year-end critics' awards and with the presence of George Clooney, an actor unafraid to forgo his movie-star status and dive into serious material even when the results aren't guaranteed. When we last saw Alexander Payne he was leading Paul Giamatti through the joyfully cranky Sideways, and as Clooney shambled through The Descendants I found myself wishing Giamatti's wine-lover would show up and get things moving. Try to imagine a car spinning its wheels in the mud and you'll have an idea what the first few minutes here feel like,. The already much-critiqued voice over in which Matt King (Clooney) explains both his wife's coma and his family's long connection to an unspoiled tract of Hawaiian land is indeed dreadful; it saps the movie of energy and shoves exposition down the audiences' throats in an unaccountably clumsy way. Couldn't Matt's inadequacies as a husband and father have been revealed through behavior? I'm stumped as to what Payne was after here, unless he felt that dull voice-over was the best way to somehow reveal Matt's resignation about his own shortcomings. (It wasn't.) I can't say Clooney's performance in The Descendants is "bad" by any objective standard, but I also can't deny that watching him strain to be a regular guy is unintentionally hilarious at some badly timed moments. Clooney wasn't built to play men who are bad at things, and the screenplay schematically puts him in a reactive position. Also, there are no jokes. Talk about a perfect storm.

The Descendants is about too many things. The question of to whom and for how much Matt and his family will sell an enormous tract of land is a complete bore unless you're a fan of movies where people learn how rich they're going to be. Clooney and a large band of cousins (led by Beau Bridges) dicker over competing buyers and prices, and it all winds up with a decision that isn't very surprising and a Clooney speech that someone is hoping will get played on awards shows this winter. The fact that native Hawaiians barely figure in the film's world and that most of Matt's cousins could be cast in a movie about a Des Moines Rotary Club is probably true to the source material (a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings) but it doesn't help the movie's sense of place. Matt King may feel deep ties to his land, but Alexander Payne is a tourist in Hawaii. Payne is more interested what happens when Matt and his daughters travel the state to update relatives on his wife's medical condition and track the man (Matthew Lillard) with whom she was having an affair. Even here the film is built on a creaky foundation since these scenes are really one long, sustained note of fury at a woman who can't speak for herself. Much of what happens in The Descendants comes out of a kind of emotional ugliness that's not becoming of a director who made us feel something for Tracy Flick in Election. The expected moments of healing come, but this strand of the movie trails off as opposed to resolving itself.

To the degree that anything redeems The Descendants, it's the performances of Amara Miller as Matt's youngest daughter Scottie (an elementary schooler crying out for attention) and especially of Shailene Woodley as older daughter Alexandra. Alexandra's revelation of her mother's affair sets off the film's journey and the self-possessed Woodley walks away with The Descendants as a young woman whose anger at and love for her mother will both never have a chance to be properly expressed. A different director could have made something messy and human out of Alexandra's story but Payne is after bigger fish for better or for worse. It's an astonishing performance and one that heralds great things for Shailene Woodley. I very much wanted The Descendants to be better, but too much of it left me sour and uncomfortable, as if Alexander Payne had turned in a film constructed to impress critics as opposed to one that he felt he couldn't not make. Payne reportedly has several films in the offing, and I hope this one was just a case of shaking off the rust.

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