“George Clooney can’t act! Whatever he does, whatever his character is feeling, his expression is the same!” So began The Boy’s tirade against The Descendants, the Alexander Payne Hawaii travelogue. So I think it’s fair to point out that The Boy revised that opinion somewhat for this film, with the additional good news that whatever Clooney has done to his face, he does seem to be able to move it now more than Up In The Air.
So, yeah, this is the first in the trilogy of films-we-didn’t-really-wanna-see-but-whatchoo-gonna-do? with Hugo and Melancholia rounding out the trinity of Oscar-bait crap crowding out potentially good films like Tucker and Dale vs. Evil and The Human Centipede 2.
Verdict? Welllll, meh. The Boy had a somewhat favorable response, saying that he hadn’t seen a movie like that before so it held some interest. My response was, well, meh, because I’ve seen About Schmidt and Sideways and Election. The Descendants falls somewhere between About Schmidt and Election in terms of entertainment value, and closer to About Schmidt in terms of characters.
Also, you know how, if you see a Tim Burton film, you’re gonna see the director wrestle with his daddy issues? With a Payne film, you’re gonna see the director wrestle with his woman issues. Women are going to be some combination of controlling, emasculating, cuckolding.
Having seen all of Payne’s feature films (except Citizen Ruth), I think it’s fair to say that Sideways is far-and-away the best and that allows a lot to Paul Giamatti’s irascible lovableness.
In The Descendants, Clooney’s character sets off on a journey around the Hawaiian islands to tell his friends that his comatose wife is dying (boat accident). The kicker is that his elder, delinquent daughter has let him know that his wife was cheating on him before the accident. (This is all in the trailers, and revealed early in the film, so it’s not meant to be a twist or nothin’. In fact, I think that dramatic tension is supposed to be the compelling interest.)
So, it’s a combination of telling everyone the tragic news, trying to find out more about the Other Man and, as in Sideways and Schmidt, finding some redemption in the journey.
Added to the mix, and giving the movie its title, are the descendants: People who own a big, undeveloped chunk of one of the islands, who are being forced to sell. Clooney’s character is the controller of the trust, one of the descendants who makes no money from the trust, but lets it appreciate in value while working his modest legal business.
If I were going to fault Payne for anything, in general, it would be an apparent tendency to be muted. Like, WASPy-muted, as if big dramatic tension or emotional displays are in bad taste. And you can make an argument for that in real life, I guess, but in movie-making it means that, for example, when the cuckold has a chance for revenge, but that revenge will potentially destroy a lot of people around him, Payne will work to defuse that as quickly and quietly as possible.
At the same time, there’s this pall of horribleness over the whole thing—a woman with one young child and one troubled child is going to die—so the potentially humorous moments are also very muted.
So, yeah. It’s not as low-key and depressing as About Schmidt but the journey and redemption lack the exuberance of Sideways. View at your own risk.