Going down? That’s the direction of the characters in the new comedy-drama The Descendants (get it?) and, for that matter, the characters in all of the films of Alexander Payne.
Payne’s fifth feature—after Sideways, About Schmidt, Election, and Citizen Ruth—may be his least satisfying (in satirical terms, it’s relatively toothless), but it’s diverting enough and provides yet another solid star vehicle for George Clooney. In his press rounds, Payne has confessed to “growing up,” but maturity may not be where this somewhat snarky skeptic of human nature lives most comfortably.
Clooney plays Matt King, a lawyer and hapless father troubleshooting domestic and business concerns in a Hawaii he drily notes is not the “paradise” mainlanders imagine (adding that paradise can do something unprintable to itself). King’s petulance derives mostly from his wife being in a coma as a result of a boating accident, and his inability to do anything about it. As a father, he’s clumsy at best: by pampering ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), Matt hopes to distract her from her mother’s decline. No such trickery works on seventeen-year-old Alexandra (impressive newcomer Shailene Woodley), a borderline delinquent who won’t be handled.
Matt’s business issue involves his role as trustee of his family’s ancestral land: 25,000 pristine acres in Kauai that will bring the Kings a pretty penny if they can agree on a buyer. As this subplot lingers in the background, Matt becomes obsessed with a third concern: investigating a secret about his wife that surfaces early in the picture. Three guesses as to what that might be, but it provides the excuse for the Kings to island-hop and family-bond in search of closure about Mom.
Thanks in part to a supporting cast that includes Nick Krause, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer, Robert Forster and Beau Bridges, Payne reliably delivers light amusement, and by way of balance, the material takes on weight from the convincing seriocomic work of the actors playing the Kings. So The Descendants nominally functions as a family drama and as a consistent test of character for Matt (props too for the sense of place). But it’s also fair to say that this adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel is supremely obvious, setting up targets and knocking them down with little in the way of surprise and a politically correct history lesson about land ownership that’s basically a non-starter.
Those moments that do qualify as surprises immediately betray their jerry-rigging. Not once, but twice Payne establishes a character as an archetype, then turns around and reveals that the guy is deeper than you think. While humanizing supporting characters is a noble goal, gently slapping the viewer on the wrist for assuming a stereotypical character is stereotypical qualifies as disingenuous. Such scenes also emblematize the film’s ultimately failed attempt to achieve its intended delicate balance of comedy and tragedy. If you see The Descendants, see it for Clooney (and Woodley), but don’t believe the hype that it’s one for the ages.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]