|Image: 20th Century Fox|
It’s been seven years since Alexander Payne’s last feature, the acclaimed and award-winning dramatic comedy Sideways. He’s returned to middle age crises for his new film, with George Clooney leading the cast, and it’s proven to be an awards magnet.
Hawaii lawyer Matt King (Clooney) is reeling. His wife is in a coma after a powerboat racing accident, leaving him to take responsibility for his daughters, 17-year old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and 10 year old Scottie (Amara Miller). He’s also planning the sale of a large piece of land that his family have looked after for generations. When he discovers that his wife is dying and that she was cheating on him, he decides that it’s time to start taking care of things.
Payne’s a filmmaker known for not flinching from unpleasant truths. The man behind Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways has a history of making comedy dramas with sharp teeth. So it’s a bit of a disappointment to find The Descendants is somewhat toothless. It’s certainly entertaining and sometimes quite moving, but it’s content to keep the darkness at the edges instead of really engaging it. The film is at its strongest when Matt confronts his problems head on, and given that the film starts with Matt’s narration telling us that people in Hawaii are just as screwed up as everyone else, it seems strange that The Descendants is so laid-back for most of its running time.
Clooney’s been given awards recognition already for his performance as the passive Matt. It’s an effective, subdued portrayal of a man struggling to connect with his children for pretty much the first time and generally start taking an active role. Matt is in a constant see-saw between what’s acceptable and what’s not, and trying to figure out where he needs to set boundaries. His relationship with his daughter Alexandra is one of the film’s high-points, as she is still identifiably a teenager but she is also able to take on the responsibility that Matt is incapable of. The character’s growing up is not in any way exaggerated or unbelievable. Woodley is excellent and as deserving of attention as Clooney, and she works wonderfully with Miller.
But Payne never really scrapes deep enough beneath the surface. While it’s refreshing to see a drama in which the lead doesn’t have to break down and fracture completely, things progress a little too neatly and simply here. There are too many overly familiar elements of family drama, from the unnecessary narration to stock characters like the stoner boyfriend (Nick Krause) and the angry father-in-law (Robert Forster). But the film improves in its final third, with impressively written and performed, honest scenes featuring Matthew Lillard (Scream) and the always-excellent Judy Greer (Arrested Development).
The mellow tone matches the Hawaiian setting and it’s certainly an enjoyable, often surprisingly funny watch. However, we would have liked Payne to go a bit deeper.
An entertaining drama that’s a little shallow but enjoyable nevertheless. Shailene Woodley’s definitely one to watch.