Sunday, January 22, 2012

Movie Review: The Descendants

The Descendants (2011)
Directed By: Alexander Payne
Based on the Novel By: Kaui Hart Hemmings
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Judy Greer and Matthew Lillard

When it comes to Alexander Payne, one expects to meet quirky and beautifully drawn characters surrounded by everyday issues that ultimately set off a series of events that eventually reveal the inner humanity of its main players. Dark and satirical, Payne's films tend to leave memorable, and emotional, impacts. The acclaim his previous work has garnered over the years is well-deserved, especially when discussing the wonderful and underrated About Schmidt (2002). Expectations were high with the release of The Descendants, Payne's first film in nearly seven years. Thus far, the film has become a critical darling, with both film circles and audiences singing its praises. Imagine my surprise when, after finally viewing the Oscar frontrunner, I was left disappointed and bewildered by the high praise it has received.

Matt King (George Clooney) is a direct descendant of some of Hawaii's original settlers and, through a line of inter-marriages, a native princess. As the chief trustee of the King family's 25,000 acres of land on Kauai's South Shore, Matt must make the final decision on whether or not his family should sell their private piece of paradise to a bunch of developers. His decision is quickly put on hold with his wife's Jet Ski accident -- an accident that puts her in a coma and on the brink of death. As his wife clings to life, Matt, a self-professed "backup parent", must grapple with impending widowhood while struggling to bond with his two daughters; rebellious teen, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), and 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller). To add to the rapidly thickening plot, Matt discovers that his wife had been having an affair with a realtor named Brian (Matthew Lillard) whose own wife (Judy Greer) was also unaware of the relationship. Matt sets off to investigate his wife's affair, dragging his daughters along in an effort to force a bond between them.

Payne manages to balance multiple narrative threads, weaving them into a coherent story focused on the struggles of the King clan. However, despite the fact that the film was meant as a character study, the film is surprisingly devoid of any real emotional heft. Payne, a usually insightful and evocative storyteller, has left his audience hanging. The Descendants barely scratches the surface of the inner turmoil of his characters, resulting in an emotionally detached story about some guy trying to come to terms with where life has suddenly taken him. Everything about the film is "surface" right down to the cloying voice-over narration that insists on having Matt tell us what he is feeling, but rarely showing us. Where Payne utilized voice-over narration to both heartbreaking and hilarious perfection in About Schmidt and Election (1999), he struggles here to truly reveal anything of substance about Matt.

Clooney and Woodley are both good and play well off one another, although I think Miller, as the precocious Scottie, is the true standout in the film. It's well-acted, considering what little the actors were given to work with in terms of character nuances. In a year where there was a wealth of standout films (and performances), it's hard to believe that The Descendants is what is really hitting an emotional nerve with critics and audiences.

Check out this REVIEW by Jason McKiernan of Next Projection. He perfectly put into words how I felt about The Descendants. I couldn't have said it better myself.