‘The Descendants’ an uncharacteristic letdown from Alexander Payne

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The Descendants
Directed by Alexander Payne
Written by Alexander Payne
USA, 2012

The most obvious theme running through the films of Alexander Payne is the wide-eyed angst that all of Payne’s protagonists struggle through. At his best, Payne is a more humorous version of Thomas McCarthy, as he often analyzes small town America and its rightful misgivings. With his new film, Payne extends his hand to Hawaii, focusing on Matt King, played by George Clooney, a land baron out of his depth trying to re-connect with his two daughters, Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alex (Shailene Woodley), after his wife suffers a tragic boating accident. It’s totally par for the course for Payne, whose best efforts consist of the director serving up sophisticated dramedy. This time, we get the vibe that we aren’t watching a seasoned director at work, but a first time filmmaker looking to make his presence known on the indie front.

On a base level, Payne is depicting the ebb and flow of life, but with The Descendants, the director has gone a different route and has painted himself into a corner in which his film suffocates under the weight of its own sentimentality. Matt King is comfortably wealthy; he is the sole trustee of 25,000 acres of untouched land on the island of Kaua’i, passed down from his ancestors. The trust will expire in seven years, and the family has decided to sell the land for development. We learn all of this through lazy voice-over in the first ten minutes, as Matt invites us into his life in Hawaii and the dilemma he’s been dealt. We gather that Matt is “the backup parent,” as he puts it, estranged from his daughters and now left to care for them while trying to tie up all loose ends concerning his land.

From what we’re told, Matt has always been removed and unaffected by life’s harsh nature. The narrative does its ultimate best to stack the deck against Matt, amping up the stakes for him to fail and earn our sympathy at every turn, but do we really care? Once he wrangles his kids up, Matt embarks on an “emotional” journey to confront the man who was sleeping with his wife before the accident occurred. It all plays out in an extremely unsatisfying fashion as Payne consistently fails to bring any honesty or urgency to the proceedings. I suspect the film will play like gangbusters to the over 40 crowd, those looking to not be challenged and have everything spoon-fed to them. While we’re supposed to care for Matt, we’re left scratching our heads as to what really makes the guy tick. While Clooney’s presence is certainly felt, his character hardly feels lived-in and portrayed to no greater effect.

The Descendants loses its grasp on authenticity way too quickly, as it shamefully relies on low-grade humor for laughs (something that worked much better in Payne’s earlier films), most notably by the film’s younger characters. Payne then has the audacity to try and morph these wooden caricatures into three-dimensional characters by offering up tragedy in their past, it’s all very predictable and tiring. As Matt begins to reconcile with himself and let go of the past, the film makes its final transition into mediocrity, thus serving up one of the few familial scenes that ring true, as barely any dialogue is uttered and nothing is spelled out for us. Unfortunately for us, this takes place in the last scene of the film, where any semblance of caring about this family and their world has long passed us.

Ty Landis

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