Home Video Hovel- The Descendants
Alexander Payne keeps heading west. After his “Omaha trilogy” (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt), he took his often intriguingly passionless explorations of white, middle-age, bourgeois ennui to California with 2004’s Sideways. Now, with The Descendants, he’s gone about as far as the boundaries of the United States will let him, to Hawaii.
I’ve always been drawn to Payne’s brand of gentle misanthropy. Buried beneath the “indie” comedy that is edgy by your parents’ standards, there’s a cold pragmatism to his work that often crosses over into actual mean-spiritedness. The Descendants has plenty of that but in other ways Payne is out of his element here, and not simply because he’s off the mainland.
For the first time, Payne is telling the story of a man who is currently and actively a parent of children. Jack Nicholson’s widower in About Schmidt is the closest he’s come before – and there are numerous similarities between that film and this one – but that man was the all but estranged father of an adult. George Clooney’s Matt King is left the direct responsibility of his two young daughters when his wife enters a coma after a boating accident. Meanwhile, Matt’s extended family is deciding what to do with the grotesquely lucrative plot of land into the custody of which they all happened to be born. These two storylines will continue and eventually merge to illustrate Matt’s journey toward learning to be present and to focus on what’s important to him and his family. It is, to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Rosenbaum, “lightweight uplift” but it’s handled deftly from a thematic and intellectual standpoint. Along the way, though, Payne struggles to effectively portray any believable relationship between Matt and his girls. This is not a man who hasn’t had anything to do with his daughters’ life in years, like Nicholson in Schmidt. Matt lives in the same house as these two young people yet at times it feels like they’ve just met. It’s hard to accept that this man even existed before the movie started.
Still, there are things to enjoy about The Descendants, chiefly in the performances. The long-underrated and underused Mathew Lillard is subtle, realistic and funny as the man with whom Matt’s wife was having an affair before her accident. Veterans Robert Forster and Beau Bridges oscillate between warm and threatening in ways that are a delight to behold. And young Shailene Woodley, already with a bounty of television work under her belt, announces her cinematic presence with a performance that is the definition of commanding.
Also and as always, there is Payne’s cruel sense of humor. There’s a scene near the end where Clooney and Judy Greer face off over the comatose body of Matt’s wife that is sickly hilarious and achingly uncomfortable. In fact, a lot of what happens at the end of The Descendants is rather impressive. It’s just too bad it was such a slog getting there.