The Descendants is a soap opera with Hawaiian shirts. It’s worth seeing for the sharp but uneven human observations in the script and direction by Alexander Payne (Sideways), and sometimes it’s fun (but mostly exasperating) watching George Clooney trying to act as he struggles through the role of a man trying to raise two needy daughters while grieving over the loss of his wife in a boating accident. Clichés ensue. Clooney fans may be pleased to see their hero in a sentimental tearjerker, but the fawning and gushing of so many astute critics who have greeted this plodding melodrama with raves on the film-festival circuit mystifies me. The Descendants has moments, and I give it high marks for making literal sense at a time when few movies do, but it isn’t original or revealing enough to merit a running time of just under two hours. To me, it doesn’t come close to this year’s other George Clooney potboiler, The Ides of March.
As Matt King, the descendant of a royal Hawaiian princess (huh?), the star controls a plot of 25,000 acres of priceless virgin territory in Kauai that everyone urges him to sell to greedy developers for more money than Dole has pineapples. It’s a bad time for a work-obsessed entrepreneur under pressure. While he’s playing real estate lawyer and sorting out his differences with relatives (headed by Beau Bridges) to keep the land pristine and save Paradise, he also has to grapple with the decision to pull the plug on his brain-dead wife, Liz, who has been lying in the hospital in a coma for 23 days. Suddenly the backdrop of swaying palms and cobalt skies seems like a cruel irony to this island native who spends all of his time in shorts and banana-leaf T-shirts. “Paradise can go fuck itself,” he says in the opening voiceover. He’s mad with good cause. He’s also terrified of being left alone to raise 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), the cynical daughters he has never taken the time to know. Grief morphs into real rage when Alexandra, home from boarding school with ascerbic put-downs and attitude, drops the bomb that their perfect mom also had a lover on the side Matt didn’t even know about and was planning to divorce him. Matt is understandably confused, and the three women in his life are a mess. Cynical Alexandra is into drugs and older men. Scottie cusses and emails her friends about sex. Liz, he discovers, was a secret party girl into motorcycles, speedboats and heavy drinking. “She doesn’t want us sitting around watching her spoil like milk,” he grumps, but when her condition turns terminal, one contrivance after another piles up like a stack of toothpicks, as Pop and the girls deal with a scrappy grandpa (Robert Forster), a grandmother with Alzheimer’s, the wife’s married lover (Matthew Lillard) and the lover’s own unsuspecting wife (Judy Greer). Along for the ride is Alexandra’s rude, insensitive, politically clueless, surf-dude boyfriend, Sid (Nick Krause). The movie is about the ways a reluctant schlump with no parenting skills and a pathetic view of the human race is forced to re-evaluate his mistakes, count his losses and wake up before it’s too late to smell the bougainvilla.
I wish I could say I enjoyed this corn more than I did. Snowy haired and brown as burned butter, Mr. Clooney looks great barefoot and topless, and it’s nice to see him play warmth as well as wit. He rarely has the chance to take on a role that requires something more than enigmatic winks and smug grins, and as his hair grays and his lines deepen, his trademark charm seems more genuine. But I found the film’s moments of pathos every bit as unconvincing as the bigger picture of a man who learns late-life redemption through guilt, and I found Mr. Clooney’s tears and sentimentality especially clumsy. It’s hard to fault him because he works so hard to distance himself from his usual two-fisted fictions, but he fails to engineer a consistently mature characterization from start to finish. He seems to be more concerned with having a good time on a Hawaiian holiday. An attempt is made to capture a truthful crumbling of manly composure about what is happening in his wasted life, but during his big crying scene on a bridge, the camera is on his back. It’s as though Mr. Payne didn’t feel he was entirely up to the emotional demands in the closeups. In other places, the literary roots (a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings) show. It’s not a great adaptation. (The movie claims to do for Hawaii what Sideways did for the vineyards of California’s Santa Ynez Valley, but don’t believe it. South Pacific, The Hawaiians and the Esther Williams musical Pagan Love Song did a great deal more to put Hawaii on the map.)
Sometimes the screenplay works. At other times, Mr. Payne’s awkward dialogue (co-written with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) only provokes laughter in the wrong places. In the pivotal moment where Mr. Clooney disconnects the tubes on Liz’s life-support system, the tense emotional pull in the scene is interrupted by the arrival of “the other woman,” distraughtly sobbing, “I forgive you for trying to destroy my family!” The scene is so embarrassing that the impact is strangely hilarious. For the most part, I liked George Clooney as a complacent, one-dimensional corporate beach bum who discovers the value of family love and gets roughed emotionally. But the movie does not always support his good intentions. The result is a slighter, airier piece of prime-time soap opera fluff (think Falcon Crest, Dallas and Knot’s Landing) than director Payne seems to have intended.
Running Time 115 minutes
Written by Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon
Directed by Alexander Payne
Starring George Clooney, Judy Greer and Matthew Lillard