“The Descendants”: Style over substance

I’ve been looking forward to the return of Alexander Payne with an anticipation which some many not consider necessary and an obsession which some may not consider healthy, but how could I not be bitterly disappointed by this harmless and half-baked meditation on life and death?

Payne establishes his modern pastoral dialectic early on: in an expository and somewhat clunky piece of over-narration from Matt King (George Clooney), we immediately discover that he faces an all-important legal decision whilst his wife languishes in a post-boating accident coma. King, given one of the most awkwardly predictable names in recent memory, is the last direct descendant of Hawai’s former reigning family and must now decide whether to sell the land (and, in the process, delight his money-grabbing relatives – featuring some great animated turns from Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard and Robert Forster) or keep it and preserve the island’s unique vibe. (No prizes, after many a bout of deep Oscar-baiting introspection, for which our antihero finally plumps for!)

Sadly, that’s the real problem here: our empathetic allegiances are already with Clooney from the very start thanks to him suddenly finding out that his wife was having an affair (talk about adding insult to terminal injury). I can appreciate why Payne added this; he expected the two subplots to seamlessly converge, but in fact they remain as just two narrative arcs (one looking to the past, the other to the future) that clumsily trip over each other and endlessly battle for the spotlight. In his previous films, we feel no sympathy for the protagonist, whether it be because of Paul Giamatti stealing from his own mother (‘Sideways’) or Jack Nicholson’s conservative cut-backs on his wife’s funeral expenses (‘About Schmidt’). There was no obvious guiding of sentiment; it is entirely up to the audience as to whether the lead characters have, fully or partially, redeemed themselves by the time the credits have rolled. Rather, Payne’s signature offhand disrespect for character development in ‘The Descendants’ is entirely embodied in Matt King’s daughter’s boyfriend, Sid, who becomes a punching bag (both literal and figurative) for the otherwise splendid cast. The unexpected moment of humanisation given to him near the end feels both like a self-realization of Payne’s spite and also a tossed bone.

Even the occasional cathartic attack on the emotional progress aren’t really that effective – a rather unfunny flipflop sprint by Clooney fails to live up to Kathy Bates’ nude jacuzzi scene in ‘About Schmidt’. Instead, Payne tends to undermine the building of tension through unfunny, crude interjections – too often falling back on Matt King’s daughter’s continual swearing. (It’s funny ’cause she’s too young to understand what words like ‘hoe’ and ‘m*****f****r’ mean! LMFAO!)

As for Payne himself, he’s probably worthy of the ‘Best Director’ nod from the Academy. By any other measure, this is a well-made film: visually stunning and a justifiable addition to his body of cinematic work. It is only when we remember that this movie is a descendant of ‘About Schmidt’, ‘Sideways’ and the beautifully subversive ‘Election’ that we realise the hysterical plaudits and Oscar buzz are overblown. The comedy feels forced and the tragedy too heavy; ‘The Descendants’ is a cartoon mallet to the head compared to the heavenly lightness of his back catalogue.

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