It’s such a disappointment that The Descendants—Alexander Payne’s first film after a seven-year hiatus following Sideways—isn’t a better movie than it is. In this soap opera disguised as a comedy, Payne, who was always a master at balancing sharp satire with an essential humanism, has traded his tart lemon center for a squishy marshmallow one. Past Payne protagonists—Laura Dern’s abortion-seeking glue-huffer in Citizen Ruth, Paul Giamatti’s sozzled schoolteacher in Sideways—were irredeemable jerks we couldn’t help caring about anyway. Now he’s created his most likable protagonist yet, and I can’t seem to make myself care.
“Paradise can go fuck itself,” announces Matt King (George Clooney) in the voice-over that opens the movie. He’s grumbling about friends who think that just because Matt lives in Hawaii, runs a successful law practice, and is the trustee of a vast tract of land inherited from a royal ancestor, he couldn’t possibly have any real problems. As it happens, Matt is contending with some doozies. Just as the 25,000 unspoiled acres his family has owned for generations are about to be auctioned off to golf-course developers, his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is thrown from a speeding motorboat and winds up in a coma.
As the movie begins, the accident has already taken place (though a haunting pre-credit shot shows Elizabeth laughing in the boat just before the crash, enjoying what may turn out to be her last few seconds of life). It’s not clear whether Elizabeth will ever wake up—and she and Matt were none too happy before the accident, a fact that compounds his worry with guilt. But their mother’s condition hasn’t put a dent in the foul-mouthed brattiness of Matt and Elizabeth’s daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley, a remarkable young actress who gives the movie’s best performance). Scottie and Alex don’t really know their dad—“I’m the backup parent,” he confides to the audience in voice-over—and they mock his fumbling attempts to approximate responsible fatherhood. He pulls Alex out of the boarding school where she’d been cheerfully partying away $35,000 a year, and struggles to dissuade Scottie from ending every conversation with a raised middle finger.
But in a moment of almost accidental closeness, Alex confesses to her father that she’s furious at her comatose mother too—Elizabeth, it seems, was having an affair with a local real estate agent, Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), for whom she planned to leave her husband. After confirming this information with Elizabeth’s best friend (Mary Birdsong), Matt becomes obsessed with Speer, eventually tracking him to a vacation home on Kauai where, whiny daughters in tow, he stakes out the Speer family’s cottage, waiting for a chance to confront his rival. Along for the ride is Alex’s boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), a surfer dude with a Neanderthal’s grasp of human social graces who nonetheless demonstrates flashes of his own crude wisdom.
This is the setup for exactly the kind of story Payne does best: road movies about less-than-heroic oddballs on quests that are at once transformative and essentially ridiculous. I was so excited to see what he’d do with this misfit crew once he rounded them up and sent them on their journey. But The Descendants squanders the comic energy of its opening act. Once the Kings get to Kauai, Payne seems content to sit back and watch as the family pads around the spectacular shoreline, alternately squabbling and bonding. Matt eventually has a brief, awkward encounter with the man who made him a cuckold, and also a meeting with his barfly cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), who has his own plans for that chunk of family property. Amid all this desultory beachcombing, Matt learns hard lessons about his wife, his daughters, and himself—but they’re lessons any discerning viewer already saw coming a mile away.
The Descendants, adapted from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, is a skillfully made film that precisely evokes the sense of a place we don’t often see at the movies: contemporary urban Hawaii. With help from cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (who also shot Sideways) and a lilting score of traditional Hawaiian music, Payne establishes a mood of lush, sun-drenched melancholy. But somewhere around the midpoint I found myself watching The Descendants with a sinking sensation of is-that-all-there-is? aimlessness that I don’t think Payne intended.
This is a movie that wants to confront painful truths about love, loss, and grief, yet there’s a curious emotional brittleness about it. The script seems to operate in only two affective modes—deadpan absurdism and heart-tugging melodrama—and every time it switches gears, the grinding is audible. Taken on their own, the jokes can be funny and the dramatic moments touching, but Payne’s mastery of tone, usually so deft, feels off. The climax—a hospital scene in which both Matt and Bryan Speer’s wife (Judy Greer) deliver raw, heartfelt speeches to the comatose body of the woman who wronged them—is meant to work simultaneously as comedy and catharsis; for me, it failed as both.
Clooney, like Angelina Jolie, may be becoming a prisoner of his own Olympian looks and fame—even shambling around in shorts, flip-flops, and a goofy floral shirt, this man is self-evidently not a schlemiel. But it isn’t primarily Clooney’s fault that Matt King is such an illegible protagonist. The script (co-written by Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash) vaguely alludes to the character’s shortcomings as a father and husband without ever fleshing them out. If a woman’s going to cheat on George Clooney with the likes of Matthew Lillard, we’d better have a good idea of why. Was Matt a workaholic, as he claims in his opening voice-over? (We certainly don’t see him spend a lot of time practicing law.) Was he a sexually withholding husband, as his perpetually angry father-in-law (a terrific Robert Forster) obnoxiously insinuates? Virtually every moment of the film is spent in the company of this character, yet we come away not really knowing who Matt King is—not because, like Paul Giamatti’s romantic misanthrope in Sideways, he’s richly self-contradictory, but simply because he’s underwritten.
Without spoiling anything, I can say that The Descendants, for all its black humor, ends on a warm but unsentimental affirmation of the primacy of family. If the rest of the movie had had the effect that it was meant to (and that I very much wanted it to), the last shot would’ve brought me to tears. But the gentle pathos of the film’s ending felt somehow unearned. It was as if Payne expected the audience to look back and marvel at all we’d been through with these characters, when it seemed to this viewer that neither we nor they had been through quite enough.