Thursday, December 15, 2011
Film Review | The Descendants
by Thomas Delapa
After such critically acclaimed hits as Sideways and About Schmidt, you’d think that director Alexander Payne would have nowhere to go but up. But success can be a slippery slope in Hollywood. Even with hunky George Clooney out front and sunny Hawaii in the background, The Descendants is a balmy downer.
Call it Melancholia in Paradise, with Sir George playing Matt King, a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis. With his wife comatose in the hospital after a freak boating accident, Matt is morosely adrift, especially when it comes to handling his two troubled daughters. “I’m the backup parent,” he ruefully admits in his narration, a declaration that becomes obvious as watch his bewilderment faced with young Scottie (Amara Miller), whether acting out in grade school, or teenage Alex (Shailene Woodley), who curses—and drinks—like a sailor.
Based on a book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants has risen dramatically in critics’ 2011 Top Ten lists, though I’m as bewildered as Clooney’s rather dull and doltish character is. Unless your idea of comedy is watching Clooney wildly run around Hawaii in sandals (imagine a pineapple balancing on his head), I’d say that old Hawaii Five-0 re-runs have more juice.
Payne does his own balancing act, erratically mixing low-grade laughs (aren’t bratty kids so funny when they swear?) with a dead-serious plot that digs into both mortality and infidelity. Not only does Matt’s wife lay stricken and comatose in a hospital bed, but he’s apparently the last one to know that she has been unfaithful to him. Out of this stiff contrivance arises our hero's madcap adventure to track down and confront his rival.
After last year’s turn as a stoic, coldblooded assassin in The American, Clooney goes to the humid extremes, wearing a dewy-eyed guise of bitter and hapless vulnerability. Payne’s camera comes in for so many close-ups of actors tearing up, I thought I was watching a Kleenex commercial.
The director’s once-reliable gifts for irony and satire seemed to have dried up, replaced by clammy sentimentality. As his wife’s health goes downhill, Matt must face the ultimate choice of pulling the plug.
During the crisis, he must also deal with the business of selling his extended family’s lush swath of virgin land on neighboring Kauai. Passed down from his mixed-race ancestors, 19th century settlers of Hawaii, the land is certain to net the clan a king’s ransom.
Other than as vehicle for Clooney to show off his warm side and great tan decked out in floral shirts, Payne’s pallid film seems content to pose the star against a series of scenic Hawaii locations, accompanied by banal island music that seems better fit for a luau. Even though dysfunctional families are still alive and functional in Hollywood, this is one family tree that’s full of sap.