I absolutely love the first and last shots of Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. Each of them encompasses everything I like about his work in their straightforwardness, their simplicity, their understatement and their quiet, careful wit. These shots don’t push an agenda; they just tries to capture life in a way that finds the overlooked drama in the small moments and the unseen victory embedded in the mundane. These moments also make it that much more frustrating that Payne loses his way so often in the material that’s settled in between.
The Descendants finds Matt King, played by George Clooney, at a low point. A resident of Hawaii, Matt has control of a vast parcel of undeveloped land on the islands that governmental regulation is effectively forcing them to sell off. It’s grist for the daily papers, so total strangers pester him about his pending decision even as an array of cousins are counting on him to flip the property to developers, nicely lining the pockets of everyone in the family. At the same time, his wife, who has been growing ever most distant lately, is suddenly in a coma after a boating accident, and her prognosis isn’t good. Matt has to awkwardly reengage with his two daughters, played by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller, while also traversing the mounting emotional challenges he faces. Adapting the Kaui Hart Hemmings novel with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (yes, that Jim Rash), Payne openly acknowledges all of the complications inherent in the situations the film develops, but he’s atypically reticent to let those complications play out in a organic, reasonably subtle manner.
In particular, there’s a deadening voice over narration delivered by Clooney across the opening scenes. Payne used narration beautifully in both Election and About Schmidt with every word providing intriguing insight about the character delivering it, often because of what was conspicuously unsaid or the ways in which fact was tweaked to suit the speaker’s self-image. In The Descendants, the voice over explicates the films themes before its even had a chance to develop them, like the thesis statement a high school student is forced to insert into a paper’s opening paragraph. The narration also provides information that is revealed well enough through interactions between characters, perversely favoring flatfooted presentation instead of allowing the audience to actually intuit a thing or two. Imagine if Sideways had dragged Paul Giamatti into a recording studio to explain the sad significance of Miles retrieving his beloved bottle of 1961 Château Cheval Blanc to drink it alone at a fast food restaurant so it could be tacked onto the scene in question.
Payne thankfully discards that cinematic tool relatively quickly, but there are enough other unsightly dings across the full framework of the film. In part, it seems that Payne doesn’t quite have the gumption to make the film as plainly dramatic as he might like, falling back of bits of comic relief that are, sadly, often not that funny. That’s typified by Sid, the pal of Matt’s older daughter who tags along for much of the plot. Played by Nick Krause like a human version of the surfer dude turtle in Finding Nemo, the character is immensely dumb and lacking in savvy when it suits the film, and blessed with little reservoirs of kindness and wisdom when that’s what’s needed. Beyond a couple decent jokes at his expense early on, the character has little dramatic purpose to be there and his continuing presence increasingly defies the internal logic of the film. He’s just another element to throw into the mix, and one that Payne doesn’t quite have a grasp on either.
And yet, there is just enough in The Descendants that’s good and insightful that it just barely overtakes the bad. The relationship between Matt and his eldest daughter is particularly realistic and engaging, especially as played by Clooney and Woodley. The two have a natural rapport and their bonding over conspiratorial efforts to get at the truth of some sordid information that comes to light account for some of the film’s strongest sequences. Woodley has an especially nice ease in her scenes that leads to offhand tender moments that hold greater strength than the sort of showy bits another filmmaker might be tempted to throw her way.
The Descendants may suffer somewhat in comparison to Payne’s earlier work, but it’s also a movie that’s surprisingly rickety and out of balance. There are still lovely stretches, and the director’s commitment to awkward emotional truths remains evident, even if it takes him longer than usual to find his footing. In the end, I do like The Descendants, but I wish it’s painful missteps didn’t cast such a murky, troubling shadow.