November 23, 2011

THE BIJOU REVIEW “The Descendants”



THE DESCENDANTSWorth A Ticket – Flawed But Heartfelt

It’s taken an unaccountable 7 years for Alexander Payne to follow up Sideways, the biggest hit of his career,  with THE DESCENDANTS, which will hit theatres in time for a serious awards season push in late November.  Sideways and Payne’s earlier Election are two of the best films anyone’s made in the past dozen years (and his other features Citizen Ruth and About Schmidt are hardly slouches either), setting the bar pretty high for his next film.  That may be why The Descendants, while pleasing and dramatically satisfying, feels a little bit soft.

The film, written by Payne with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (they’re better known as actors–Rash plays the mad Dean on Community), and based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, is set in Hawaii, where Matt King (George Clooney) is facing multiple crises.  Matt’s wife has been horribly injured in a boating accident, and lies in a coma, with the decision of whether or not to end her life up to him.  Whatever he decides, he’s now singlehandedly responsible for raising their two daughters:  the angry, rebellious Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and her younger sister Scottie (Amara Miller).  Meanwhile, as one of the heirs to a huge tract of family land that is being sought for development, he also has to cast a critical vote as to whether to sell his family’s legacy or pass up a huge amount of money.
And his travails are just beginning:  he learns (this is revealed in the film’s trailer, so no spoiler alert) that his wife had been having a serious affair at the time of her accident, further complicating his feelings about her and his family.  Then there’s Alexandra’s moronic boyfriend, who she insists accompany them everywhere…
All of this provides plenty of rich material for Payne and his co-writers, and the film moves smoothly between exasperated comedy and strong drama.  As you’d expect with its Hawaiian setting, The Descendants looks wonderful too.  Phedon Papamichael provides lush, gorgeous photography, the settings and landscapes could be provided by the Hawaii Tourist Bureau, and there’s good use of native music on the soundtrack.  The acting is of a very high standard–apart from those named above, Judy Greer (especially) and Matthew Lillard are very fine as key figures in what turns out to be Matt’s wife’s secret life, Robert Forster is priceless as his father-in-law, and Beau Bridges plays one of Matt’s cousins and a co-heir of the land.
And yet somehow The Descendants doesn’t quite have the impact of Payne’s best films.  It’s a little too accomplished for its own good, typified by Clooney’s presence in the starring role.  Here’s a wildly inconsistent statement:  Clooney gives a wonderful performance, one of his best, and it’s easy to imagine him as a strong contender for the Best Actor Oscar, yet he’s fundamentally wrong for the role.  Unlike Paul Giamatti in Sideways or Matthew Broderick in Election, Clooney is so un-average, so inherently glamorous, that the idea of Matt as an ordinary guy never fits–you have to keep reminding yourself that Matt is in trouble, and he won’t be able to just glide over his problems.  (Imagine Giamatti playing Matt–his recent role in Win Win wasn’t all that different a character–and you have a completely different movie, just as Win Win would have been with Clooney in the lead.) This lowers the emotional stakes, and makes the movie lighter and more escapist than it seems intended to be. 
There are other flaws–Alexandra’s boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) is a cartoon until the writers decide to unconvincingly give him depth late in the game, there’s never any doubt what Matt is ultimately going to do with his family land–and the overall effect is of an entertaining picture that doesn’t go quite deep enough.
The Descendants is very enjoyable, and it could well supplant Sideways‘ $71M as Payne’s biggest hit; no doubt it will be on the short list of Oscar candidates.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with that.  But it’s probably the first movie Alexander Payne has made that could be called “comfortable,” and it’s a little bit disappointing to see him settle for pleasing the crowd.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."