Friday, November 18, 2011

Review: "The Descendants"

Alexander Payne's The Descendants may be set on the lush islands of Hawaii, but the journey that the film takes us on is anything but a vacation. Quite the opposite; the road is pretty rough. But even though the territory that Payne is navigating is generally familiar (one major plot thread requires zero effort to guess its outcome), the journey, even at its leisurely (though never sluggish) pace is worth taking. The film, one of the director's kinder, less bitter projects, is a far cry from Payne's best work, possibly his least interesting, but it is strong enough to warrant a look from casual movie-goers and hardcore cinephiles alike.

Adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel of the same name, Payne's film centers around Matt King (George Clooney), a father struggling to manage his family after his wife gets injured in a boating accident. In addition to receiving constant trouble from his daughters Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), Matt has to deal with the revelation that his wife may have had an affair. For all of the drama on the surface, however, The Descendants packs a surprising amount of humor, which helps the somewhat familiar character and story arcs easier to get through.

The biggest obstacle that the film has, familiarity aside, lies in its opening. Rather than establish Matt's character through real interactions with other people, the opening stretch is flooded with his narration while we watch (but don't hear) him sit at his desk, eat lunch, and meet with family members. It's an off-putting way to open the story, especially when the film completely drops the narration after the opening scenes. Consequently, the opening is also where the characters, even the protagonist, are the least interesting, and the film feels the most mundane. Thankfully, once The Descendants trudges through this, the film only gets stronger, even if it never quite makes its mark as anything spectacular.

All in all, this is a showcase for Clooney, whose work here is worth the price of admission. Less concerned with maintaining his movie-star looks and image the past few years, the actor is starting to settle more and more into characters who are less similar to, well, George Clooney. The role of Matt isn't necessarily some radical departure from the slick, suave characters Clooney usually plays, but at the very least, it allows the actor some room to truly distance himself from his star persona, and sell the role based on more than mere charisma. Once he's given more to do than narrate, Clooney is able to actually dig his teeth into the role, and the result is one of the actor's strongest performances to date, despite the role's relatively straightforward characterization. But even though Clooney is the film's biggest asset, the rest of the cast certainly pulls their weight. That is, when they're actually given enough to do. The closest the film has to a major supporting role is Woodley's Alex, Matt's older daughter who tells him about the possible affair. The actress, previously known for TV's The Secret Life of the American Teenager (AKA the show that featured a high profile guest part for an android, er, Bristol Palin) makes quite the leap in quality here. Maybe it's Payne's way of working with his actors, or her strong father-daughter chemistry with Clooney; either way, the film proves that Woodley is capable of much more than teen soap opera-level acting.

Other small roles, filled out by the likes of Beau Bridges (no, not the one with the Oscar; the other one), Matthew Lillard, and Judy Greer, who really ought to be getting larger, more substantial parts at this point in her career, are also handled well. However, the film dwells so little on them that they rarely get a chance to make much of an impression. Payne seems to want to cover quite a few bases, yet still orient the film entirely around Matt's perspective, which hinders his ability to make the whole ensemble (aside from Alex) fully rounded. Then there's Sid (Nick Krause), Alex's older, dopey friend who comes along for the ride for reasons Payne doesn't seem interested in justifying. At first used for solid comedic effect, Payne finally gives the character more to work with in one nicely handled scene opposite Matt. However, once this scene is over, the character is sidelined for the rest of the film, which makes you wonder why they bothered in the first place.

That seems like a lot of issues to take with the film, but rest assured there's still plenty to like here outside of Clooney and Woodley. The film's trickiest obstacle, mixing elements of tragedy, dysfunction, and comedy, is actually pretty remarkable considering the specifics of the plot. Only once does a transition between drama and comedy come off as awkward, and the awkwardness is little more than fleeting. And however familiar the arcs may be, there's no denying that they've at least been executed well. Payne may not have made any revelatory statements about family relationships, but at the very least he's pulled them off with a level of maturity and sincerity that rises above syrupy Hollywood sentimentality. This makes for a good film, but not quite a great one (which it very well could have been). What it all comes down to in the end is that, writing issues aside, is that The Descendants lacks any real surprises. For all that's done well, which is quite a bit, the film's overall impact feels muted because there's nothing outside of the lead performance that feels like anything to write home about. The Descendants represents a nicer, more accessible Alexander Payne, but also a less interesting Alexander Payne.

Grade: B

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