You’d be hard pressed to find a modern-day American filmmaker who brings out the very best and very worst in his characters, while preserving their likability, the way that Alexander Payne does (though Quentin Tarantino, believe it or not, is not far behind). He has no interest in stacking the odds against someone, and it is that even-handedness that makes his movies so compelling. Case in point: the protagonist in his great, great 1999 comedy “Election” cheats on his wife and conspires to rig a student council election against a girl who, in his eyes, needs to be taken down a peg. A teacher picking on a teenage girl…and you’re rooting for him the entire time. That, right there, takes skill.
All of Payne’s signature trademarks are on display in his latest film “The Descendants,” but for the first time in a decade, there is an emotional detachment that keeps the viewer at arm’s length, which is all the more surprising considering that this is the most harrowing story Payne has adapted yet. One might argue that this was Payne’s goal, to show the family who suffers through the insufferable while maintaining their dignity. If so, those are admirable intentions – families go through this sort of thing all the time, after all – but the movie suffers as a result.
Attorney Matt King (George Clooney) has lived his whole life in Hawaii, but as he says himself in a voiceover, he is a long way from paradise. His estranged wife Elizabeth suffered a head injury in a boating accident, and is in an irreversible coma. His eldest daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) is doing everything she can to get kicked out of private school, and his youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) needs a strong authority figure in the absence of her mother, something that the workaholic Matt is not used to providing. Meanwhile, the rest of Matt’s extended family is leaning on him to sign paperwork that would unload his family’s last parcel of land and make them all rich. If all of this weren’t enough, Matt learns some shocking secrets about his wife’s activity before the accident, which leads Matt to take the girls, plus Alexandra’s surfer dude friend Sid (Nick Krause), on a road trip to Kauai to do a little fact-finding.
Matt spends more time under Payne’s microscope than anyone else here, so it stands to reason that the movie’s most emotionally gratifying scene comes when Matt is trying to placate his inconsolable father-in-law Scott (Robert Forster), despite the fact that everything Scott thinks he knows about his daughter is wrong. This is not to say that Payne lets anyone else off the hook, but rather that he seems more singularly focused than in his previous films. You have to think that rising real estate star Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) has a story to tell, as does Matt’s cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), but we do not get their perspective – just a glimpse at the impulses driving them at that moment. It feels like a cheat by comparison to Payne’s other work.
This is not to say that the actors don’t do their part to make the movie as watchable as possible. Clooney is pitch-perfect as Matt, handling Scott’s misdirected insults and the unwanted extra baggage of Sid (think Keanu Reeves crossed with Chris Klein) with far more grace than any of us will ever know. Shailene Woodley is getting the Oscar buzz for her turn as the rebellious Alexandra, and she’s quite good, but the best female performance here belongs to Judy Greer, who plays Brian Speer’s wife. She sounds defeated even when she’s calling out to her kids at the beach, as if to suggest that she had no say in what their (super-trendy) names would be. Her best moment, though, comes later, when she delivers a heartbreaking scene in the finale.
Payne has the mindset of a documentarian at times in his films, but “The Descendants” could have used a more forceful hand. Matt’s situation is difficult, but his choices are easy; when the movie ends – and the final scene is flawless – Matt hasn’t challenged our notions of right and wrong the way Payne’s other protagonists have. It’s smart and beautifully made, but Payne had the opportunity to punch the audience in the chest, and didn’t take the shot. Pity.(3.5 / 5)