The Descendants is a comedy-drama about a dysfunctional family — is there any other kind of family? I’ve yet to meet one — made by Alexander Payne, who also made About Schmidt and Sideways, but whereas I warmed to those films, I could not warm to this. I liked it. I enjoyed it. I did not resent the time I’d spent watching it, although that may just be because I seriously have nothing better to do. (I spent much of this morning removing the fluff from my keyboard with a pin, for example.)
It’s already been heaped with praise and two Oscar nominations (for best picture and George Clooney’s performance) but it left me cold. I suppose at some level I just could not buy it or its basic premise that someone married to Clooney might have an affair. I probably wouldn’t. I don’t know what makes me think this, I just do. I would even put down my pin the moment he got home and would have made something nice for our tea, like a lasagne.
Directed and co-written by Payne, who adapted it from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, this, too, is about a man in crisis and our man is Matt King (Clooney). Matt is a Hawaiian real estate magnate whose family, which has been on the island for centuries, must soon dispose of a huge plot of pristine land. Hawaii looks ravishingly dazzling in this, absolutely paradisial, but, as Matt says in his opening narration, people suffer the same losses, tragedies and bereavements here as anywhere. (‘Paradise? Paradise can go fuck itself,’ is how he puts it.)
The land isn’t Matt’s only problem as there is also the small matter of his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), who was involved in a speedboat accident and is now in a coma from which, the doctors tell him, she will never emerge. Until now Matt, we are led to believe, had been a workaholic lawyer (even though, mysteriously, he appears to have no clients) and an indifferent husband as well as an indifferent father (nope, would still make him a lasagne) to his two daughters: Scottie (Amara Miller), a rambunctious 10-year-old, and Alex (Shailene Woodley), a 17-year-old who is so angry and rebellious she had been dispatched to boarding school. It’s Alex who informs her father that her mother had been seeing someone else and planned on seeking a divorce.
This news sends Matt into a tailspin and his first instinct is to run, literally, to the home of some neighbouring friends in the belief that they will know the name of his wife’s lover. He runs in the first shoes to hand, deck ones, which are inappropriate for speed, and he looks extremely daft; unmanly and even girlish as his legs flap and the shoes clop. I mention this to illustrate not just how Payne can pull off comedy and distress simultaneously, but also to mark up Clooney’s lack of personal vanity. For most of the film — as he visits Elizabeth’s family to tell them the news, as he tracks down her lover for a face-off, as he reconnects with his two daughters, as he negotiates with his cousins about the sale of the land — he wears the most awful shirts teamed with the most hideous shorts. Once I’d put the pin down, I’d have to have a word with him about those, and then shuffle him off to Paul Smith.
Clooney is, I suppose, technically brilliant. Much of his story is told in close-up as he registers shock, bewilderment, rage and grief, and his effortless charm and ease win our sympathy, as always. But his character never seems as interesting as the subsidiary ones, who are deliciously well drawn and unexpected. There’s Matt’s gristly, permanently enraged father-in-law (Robert Forster), his dementia-stricken mother-in-law (Barbara L. Southern), and Alex’s goofy, stoner friend Sid (Nick Krause), who may be smarter than we think or less smart than we think. This is never quite settled.
But the emotional trajectory is familiar — what has been broken will be healed, blah, blah — while the plot contrivances in the second half seem overworked and clunky. This is a good film, like I said, which is often very funny, but it never quite feels true, and never quite satisfies. Still, it was good to get out the house.