Sunday, December 11, 2011
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.