Letter From Toronto: Descendants Overloaded with Calculation; Take Shelter Overloaded with Michael Shannon

Alexander Payne's The Descendants has just about everything you need for a male midlife-crisis movie, and more: A big plot of unspoiled family land about to be sold off to developers, sullen teenagers, a wife in a coma. Payne, in his first full-length feature since the 2004 Sideways, pulls out all the stops, including casting George Clooney, an actor who's aging beautifully but who nonetheless, thankfully, has allowed himself to look his age.

In Payne's vision, all of these elements were probably supposed to add up to a picture of utmost honesty. Instead, The Descendants is an ultra-polished picture in which every emotion we're supposed to feel has been cued up well in advance. There's nothing surprising or affecting about it, and not even Clooney, who works wonders with the occasional piece of dialogue, can save it.

Clooney plays Matt King, a well-off lawyer living in Hawaii, where generations of his family have thrived. In the movie's early minutes, he lays everything out for us in voiceover: He and his cousins are about to have a pow-wow over a vast stretch of unspoiled land that's been in the family for more than 100 years -- they've decided it's time to sell. That's plenty for any one guy's plate, but we also learn that Matt's wife has been lying unconscious for 23 days after a boating accident. Matt comes clean with the fact that he hasn't been a great husband or father, and though his precocious preteen daughter (Amara Miller) seems to be pretty well-adjusted, her 17-year-old sister (Shailene Woodley) is a pouty sort with lots of mommy issues. Together, along with the older girl's stoner pal (Nick Krause), the family sets out on a journey of reconnection and healing, supposedly ameliorated by Payne-style ironic wisecracks.

That's the thing about Payne: In pictures like Sideways and About Schmidt, he's gotten away with the junkiest kind of sentimentality by packing deadpan gags around it, like ice around a dead fish. Payne adapted the movie, with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. But if he has any real feeling for these characters, he doesn't let it show. There are lots of conveniently judgmental assessments made about adulterers; teenagers who have no clue about how complicated life really is are allowed to call the shots; grown-ups who pay lip service to the fact that they've made mistakes are absolved in the blink of an eye because, well, they're being played by George Clooney making moo-moo eyes.

Clooney does have a few good moments, and his carriage, in particular, is something to watch: His arms dangle awkwardly from his short-sleeved patterned shirts; he walks with an easy, loping gait that isn't exactly elegant. Clooney is trying hard to be believable, to be real, but he's undone at every turn by the self-assured calculation of the film around him.

For me, the movie's only real pleasure was the appearance of Robert Forster, an actor lured out of obscurity by Quentin Tarantino for his great role in Jackie Brown. Since then, Forster has appeared in movies and on TV here and there -- he was wonderful in the too-short-lived TV series Karen Cisco -- and Payne deserves credit for giving him a reasonably sized supporting role here, as Matt's taciturn father-in-law. When Forster is grousing on-screen, the movie seems momentarily alive. He's an old-time grouch, a world away from Payne's hipster misanthrope masquerading as a humanist, and I'll take one of those any day.

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  • Chester says:

    I got to see a test screening of The Descendants about a year or so ago. Your review is spot-on. While allowing for the very real possibility that the movie was fine-tuned since I saw it, I've still been absolutely astonished at the overwhelmingly glowing reviews it has received since Telluride. This material is definitely lesser Payne, certainly his least successful effort so far (and I think I'm more of a fan of his work than you appear to be).
    And your praise for Forster is well-deserved, too. He gets to deliver a punch in the face that is unquestionably the highlight of the entire movie.

  • The Cantankerist says:

    Not to dogpile on here, but I haven't actually liked anything Payne's done since Election. he seems to spend an inordinate amount of screen time sneering at characters who don't deserve such condescension, and excusing other quite loathsome characters on a whim.
    I should add: I've got a lot of time for antiheroes, multifaceted portrayals, lead characters being despicable etc. But there's a difference between portraying human fallibility and pecking at it like a hungry vulture, and the fact that such a hunger is often used to counterbalance the kind of goop Stephanie criticizes here, well, increasingly it highlights a connection between "midlife crisis" and your standard adolescent tantrum.
    Payne is, I think, an incredibly talented director. But I'd love to see him take on a tale that wasn't about a male of a certain age going on a voyage of self-discovery. I suspect it resonates with the part of his directorial process I appreciate the least.

  • NP says:

    I was just coming in here to ask "What ever happened to the Alexander Payne who directed _Election_? That is one of my favorite movies, and I've liked each successive film of his less and less. Ugh.

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