REVIEW: Alexander Payne Gives Us a Facile Movie About Complex Emotions in The Descendants

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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 his 2004 apologia for spoiled wine snobs 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. 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 -- it's time to sell, and Matt is moving to close the deal. That's plenty for any one guy's plate, but we also learn that Matt's wife, Elizabeth, has been lying unconscious for 23 days after a boating accident. In his voiceover, Matt comes clean with the fact that he hasn't been a great husband or father, and though his actual transgressions remain vague, we can assume that he's devoted so much time to his work that wife and family have often taken a backseat.

Still, Matt's precocious preteen daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), seems pretty well-adjusted: She gets excited about eating ice-cream at the casual-posh club her father belongs to, as a 10-year-old should. On the other hand, her 17-year-old sister Alex (Shailene Woodley) is a pouty sort with lots of mommy issues. As it turns out, Elizabeth isn't going to come out of that coma. When Matt breaks the news to Alex, she confronts him with a bit of insider information she's been hiding: Elizabeth had been cheating on Matt -- the other man turns out to be a grinning slimeball of a real-estate agent, played by Matthew Lillard -- and Alex, with teen-daughter petulance and self-righteousness, is furious with her. Matt appears to be less furious and more just plain hurt, and his attempts to come to terms both with his wife's betrayal and her approaching death make up the bulk of The Descendants. Together, along with Alex's half-obnoxious, half-truth-telling stoner pal (Nick Krause), Matt, Alex and Scottie set 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. With The Descendants he shows full mastery of that technique, a major achievement only if you think that's a good thing. Payne adapted the movie, with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, from Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel of the same name. But if he has any real feeling for these characters, he doesn't let it show. We know these are people in pain because we're told, repeatedly, sometimes with words and sometimes with the equivalent of acting semaphore: When Matt tells Alex her mother is definitely going to die -- she's taking a dip in the family pool -- she plunges underwater and her face crinkles into an overemotive grimace. The picture doesn't tangle with the idea that infidelity is a complicated thing, and barely concedes that the people who commit it aren't always monsters. In this story, the adulterers -- at least the one who isn't in a coma -- come off as being as sleazy and untrustworthy as possible, perhaps as a way of making the Clooney character more sympathetic.

But that's one of the problems with this material, one that Payne doesn't bother to offset: Clooney's Matt pays lip service to the fact that he's made mistakes -- we heard it in that opening voiceover, where it whizzed by in a sentence or two of dialogue. His wife's mistakes and bad behavior are the focus here (even though she can't speak for herself), and the construct turns Matt into a sanctified victim. That makes Payne's job easier -- there's no need to see people as unnecessarily complicated or flawed. But why saddle Clooney -- an actor who's capable of delicate emotional complexity -- with a character like that?

It's a testament to Clooney's gifts that he plays Matt as more than just a piece of flattened cardboard. He 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 works 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 Sisco -- and Payne deserves credit for giving him a reasonably sized supporting role here, as Matt's taciturn father-in-law. (His surprise method of dealing with the bratty stoner Sid is the movie's most spontaneous and bracing moment, and its truest, maybe because you don't see it coming a mile away.)

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. Because Payne's love for humankind is the comfortable sort: He needs to know well in advance who's good and who's bad, because that makes everything so much easier, doesn't it? Even the movie's lovely, lilting soundtrack of Hawaiian music -- provided by artists including Gabby Pahinui, Ray Kane and Keola Beamer -- feels like a forced attempt to layer some feeling onto the material. The movie, shot on location (the cinematographer is Phedon Papamichael), is gorgeous to look at, sun-drenched and golden in all the right ways. But its warmth is all on the surface. The Descendants ostensibly deals with the greatest hardships life has to offer: Betrayal, grief, the realization that loved ones don't always, or can't always, fulfill even our most modest expectations. Payne deals with these subjects with the utmost confidence and facility. Which is to say he doesn't deal with them at all.

[Portions of this review appeared earlier, in a different form, during Movieline's coverage of the 2011 Toronto Film Festival.]

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  • AS says:

    No way! Zacharek is the only critic to give it a bad review. I'm so shocked! (Sarcasm). Move over Armond White, we have a new contrarian in town.

  • The WInchester says:

    Typical critic speak, expressing an opinion on something! What the hell, critics?

  • I know, right? Three cheers for groupthink!

  • snideproject says:

    I've seen it, and I have to agree. I do, however, take issue with the kudos you give Clooney for aging gracefully; he's openly admitted to having had plastic surgery.

  • I'm glad someone thought this film was as mean-spirited as I thought. What with all these characters making snap-judgements and circling around Hawaii to solve problems of little consequence while a woman is in a permanent coma, it's infinitely easier to sympathize with Matthew Lillard's adulterer than it ever is with Clooney and his two daughters.

  • Pat says:

    "The picture doesn’t tangle with the idea that infidelity is a complicated thing, and barely concedes that the people who commit it aren’t always monsters. In this story, the adulterers — at least the one who isn’t in a coma — come off as being as sleazy and untrustworthy as possible, perhaps as a way of making the Clooney character more sympathetic."
    -Really? Diagree.

  • Pat says:

    (I feel that strongly!)

  • LaRue says:

    Once again, thank you Stephanie for being the voice of reason. I had big problems with this movie, which to me felt like propaganda. I imagine the audience for this to be upper-middle class oldsters who want to be reassured that their lives are as diffcult as anyone's. The scene where Clooney & his daughter go to his daughter's classmate's lower class house exposes Payne's sneering contempt. Seriously, the protagonist's dilemna: to sell or keep the land is essentially meaningless -- either he sells, becomes super rich and ensures the devotion of an extended family he doesn't care about or he doesn't sell, stays rich and incurs the wrath of an extended family he doesn't care about. Not to mention the fact that the comatose wife's wish to be taken off life support is put on the backburner so Clooney can go on an emotional journey. Bad bad bad.

    • LolaMontez says:

      Movies about rich white people are rarely very good or interesting.

      Disney's "Lilo & Stitch" was a more racially (and economically) accurate look at Hawaii than this; Hawaii is actually most racially INTEGRATED and diverse US state, where people have been intermarrying for many generations.

      It's pretty incredible that the hero's family had one wealthy aristocratic Hawaiian ancestor, and then for several generations, they all married white people until they bred literally every iota of Polynesian out of themselves.

      As Ms. Zacharek very correctly notes, it is a battle between some guy choosing to be immensely rich or just very, very rich -- and IN HAWAII.

      Wonder if you would have sold tickets to this if the setting had been changed from Hawaii to Topeka, Kansas.

  • TN says:

    This movie left me cold. I went in really hoping I'd laugh and cry and love it. I wish I enjoyed it more. It's not a bad movie at all, just not very memorable/special. It's mildly surpising that it's getting such great reviews.

  • deedee says:

    Agree with all the negative comments. The movie was a huge disappointment and a waste of a a nice Sunday afternoon. Not even Hawaii looked good--shame.

  • amanda says:

    You hit the nail on the head with this one. This movie was a disappointment. I don't get what all the hype is about.

  • Chris says:

    My eyes remained bone dry all through this movie. And i'm a HUGE softy/crier. And I hardly laughed. That's how I know this movie wasn't very good.

  • kent says:

    i too was very diaappointed in the movie.. it was one of the worst movies i've ever seen and since i'm 76 i've seen an awful lot of movies.. it was neither funny or sad.. it was just plain bad.. i thought the teenage girl was very good except for saying f*** about 100 times.. i thought clooney was not good at all.. he looked to me like he didn't know whether to be funny or sad and like the movie he was neither.. i think hollywood loves certain people, like`clooney, scorcese (sp.?), eastwood and the coen brothers and they can do no wrong.. in my opinion there have been some terrible movies nominated for best picture in recent years like little miss sunshine, atonement, the departed and true grit and now the descendants.. i know i'm in the minority but i've seen alot of great movies over the years and to me it's obvious that the descendants is one of the worst i've ever seen..

  • Laurie says:

    right on! I thought I was the only person in the western hemisphere that didn't like this movie. Zacharek is correct in her review. Except for one thing....she enjoyed Robert Forster's performance, while I found it to be phony and over the top.

  • Robert says:

    Yes, Ms. Zacharek hits the nail on the head. This film is flat-footed and tedious. The script is flaccid and the direction is --- what direction? --- weak in every way you can think of. The actors are knocking themselves out trying to bring this thing to life, but they can't (but Shailene Woodley (as Alexandra) comes closest to bringing some spark to the film). And the cinematography? Good grief. Shot by the C student in the ninth-grade film club. Most of the critics tell me I'm getting a truly great pizza ... I open the box and there sit a couple of rice cakes!