The Descendants (2011)

06 February 2012

To some extent, it seems redundant to criticise a film for not being something it didn't set out to be. But at some point, one must ask: in what ways could this work and its drama have been improved? Unfortunately for The Descendants, the answer is: many. Particularly for a film that has, as its potentially fruitful fundamentals, a familial - and familiar - drama foregrounded against the social transformations resulting from the selling of land inherited down the generations, Alexander Payne's latest work, co-adapted by him with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from Kaui Hart Hemmings's novel, though it is not without its moments or charms, seems finally to be an opportunity missed.

The Descendants begins with an image of Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie) water-skiing under the sun, her euphoric face and the palpable speed with which she bumps across a turquoise sea both undercut by a jarringly laid-back soundtrack and a slow fade to a premature black, as if this striking, paradisal shot has already become an ironic past-tense. Indeed it has: post-credits sequence, Elizabeth spends the remainder of the film in a coma, as husband Matt (George Clooney) comes to terms with the knowledge she will not reawaken from it. With teenage daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) and impressionable younger daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) in tow, Matt must inform Elizabeth's friends and family of the situation.

Alongside this task, a deadline looms over Matt and the nine cousins with whom he shares 25,000 acres of Hawaiian land, which agents wish to buy up so as to transform the idyll forever into some kind of exclusive resort of the presumably Trumpian variety. For much of the film, this secondary plot seems incidental; as the film progresses, it becomes linked to the Kings' more immediate concerns.

Payne's brand of filmmaking contents itself with an accessible and ordinary aesthetic, to allow for its funnier parts to exist as throwaway idiosyncrasies - such as that when Matt runs in ill-suited shoes to the house of close friends Kai and Mark (Mary Birdsong and Rob Huebel) - whilst retaining a recognisable and foreseeable dramatic arc cued incessantly by a pleasant acoustic guitar. Indeed, the film's opening third is narrated by Clooney as if to be daring in its apparent conventionality; perhaps it was the makers' wishes not to overwhelm their premise with formal eccentricities.

The problem is that, in the end, very little of it matters. An unassuming aesthetic may indeed accommodate a more unfussy focus upon a work's actual content, but The Descendants' material isn't quite as probing as it could have been, indeed seems to necessarily skirt the more pressing questions that hover at its edges. As Michael Koresky notes, Clooney's early narration has an air of disingenuousness, since its expository information sets up the apparently complex social makeup of Hawaii only to then forget about it entirely, becoming instead "a story about a relatively well-off middle-class family dealing not only with sudden loss but also with the uncommon conundrum of whether to sell a chunk of inherited land for a hefty sum".

When Matt finally gets around to making the decision of selling or retaining the land with which he's been entrusted, you can't help but feel its dramatic significance for him is forced. It doesn't help that his decision is informed less by appeals to tradition, or sympathy for the many inhabitants whose life would be affected by the land's sale, than by the more personal desire to oust Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), the real estate agent who'd profit most from the deal - and who was having an affair with Matt's wife.

If this fling, which Matt was unaware of prior to his wife's accident, is something of a narrative convenience in the way it settles the final decision, it's doubly disappointing that, having sent the film and its principal characters into an epiphanic journey of confrontation-cum-discovery, Speer turns out to be so one-dimensional. Whereas Clooney can wring some kind of nuanced conflict from Matt - the fine, complex lines between hurt, humiliation, outrage and curiosity - Lillard isn't given enough space to do anything particularly challenging with his Blazes Boylan. The film's treatment of him is not challenging enough; when Speer's side of the affair turns out to be strategically linked to the land sale, with him not so much loving Matt's wife as using her as a means of gaining ground in the race for capital, a trick has been missed.

Just as symptomatic of this sort of self-subscribed "false complexity" is the presence of Alex's friend Sid (Nick Krause), a moronic and insensitive modern-day Ted Logan, whose early, moronic insensitivities are countered by a transparently calculated scene in which he shows himself to be dealing with his own recent loss - that of his father. Like the viewer, for whom this new information doesn't quite fit, Clooney's Matt answers with silence. Annoying and never plausible, Sid's continued inclusion in the King family's road trip is in doubt from the moment he openly laughs at Alex's dementia-suffering grandmother; one asks how an otherwise astute young girl such as Alex would tolerate a lad like this - especially since his immature/mature binary is without gradient, is unconvincing.

These things said, the film unfolds in a digestible manner, with Clooney doing enough at its centre to maintain interest. It shouldn't be a relevation by now that the man can act; his ability to imbue a character like Matt with socially privileged confidence (apathy?) alongside middle-aged vulnerability seeps through effortlessly in every scene. Clooney provides the film its assuring backbone; though it may well have worked without him - you wouldn't be too pushed to picture Paul Giamatti, of Payne's previous feature Sideways (2004), in the same role - it's a stronger film with him.