Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: George Clooney, Shallene Woodley, Amara Miller
Running Time: 115 minutes
Hawaiian land baron Matt King (George Clooney) is going through a bad time: his wife is on a life support machine and he has to look after his daughters. If that’s not bad enough, he discovers his wife was having an affair.
“This sweet, sad new film from Alexander Payne holds a promise of gentleness that is fulfilled, and a promise of complexity that isn’t.” Guardian.
“A lot of The Descendants is affecting, but its mushier tone is often less emotionally resonant than the bitter sarcasm of Payne’s earlier work.” Las Vegas Weekly
“To call “The Descendants” perfect would be a kind of insult, a betrayal of its commitment to, and celebration of, human imperfection. Its flaws are impossible to distinguish from its pleasures.” New York Times
“It left me cold. The pathos is as unearned as the protagonist’s privilege.” Village Voice
George Clooney is terrific in this movie – this has to be said from the start. He has reached the age where he can now slip perfectly into those easily under-estimated Hollywood roles as the nice, unassuming grown up male ingenue. Alexander Payne’s movie fits him like a bespoke velvet glove even if the movie itself seldoms allows him to show any iron fist beneath it.
It is difficult, at first, to warm to this rather average but well-heeled, American-Hawaiian family living in a big house with a swimming pool in the yard. OK, Elizabeth, the wife, is on a life-support machine right from the beginning but, hey, don’t get me wrong, people die in the movies every day. Do we really care about another mid-life crisis from her middle-aged, middle-class white bloke of a husband? Well, yes actually. Clooney does make the man real, pained, truly powerful when he needs to be but also lightly funny in a way that no one else has really achieved since Cary Grant built an entire career around similar roles many years ago.
The film itself is a similarly and mostly successful balance of pathos and comedy even if it takes a moment or two for us to stop looking for the expected family movie cutely funny scenes. The trailer, and why not, tries to make The Descendants seem like more of a comedy than it is but when it is funny, it is actually very funny in a wryly observational way. No more so than in the unexpected twists in the relationships between Clooney and the various teenage characters – Shallene Woodley and Amara Miller, as the two daughters are both on cracking form helped consistently by the scripts gentle avoidance of obvious character development. A special round of applause is needed too for Nick Krause as dawkish teenager Sid who plays his part right down the line with all its twists and turns. There is a large cast and Payne makes even the smallest role count.
This is an actors film and very good they are too but, lovely though Hawaii looks, the movie is let down by its filming style. It is shot in a low key, lazily-framed way redolent of middle-brow made for TV family dramas and the camera never quite delivers those wow moments that would make you really care about this Paradise under threat. The loss of tension extends to the editing too and that is, in the end, why the movie doesn’t quite get to where it wants to go. I’m back to that average family thing again and, sadly, when it was all over, I never really cared quite enough about any of them.