THE DESCENDANTS (Dir. Alexander Payne, 2011)
In his consistently fine films, Alexander Payne excels in capturing his characters’ descent into desperate goofiness.
From school teacher Matthew Broderick’s scheming to have an ill-fated affair in ELECTION, to Paul Giamatti’s reacting to news that his book has being rejected by yet another publisher by swigging the spit bowl at a public wine tasting in SIDEWAYS, Payne has nailed some hilariously pathetic behavior.
Which is why I kept waiting for Payne’s latest protagonist, a well-to-do lawyer in Hawaii played by George Clooney, to lose his cool. Oddly, except for some doofish running in flip-flops, and darting behind bushes, Clooney mostly keeps it in check.
Clooney’s wife is in a coma after a boating accident, he’s responsible for handling the sale of the 25,000 acres of Kaua’I island land his family owns, and his 2 daughters (the rebellious Shailene Woodley and the foul mouthed Amara Miller) are more than a handful.
There’s also that Woodley, home from private school, tells her befuddled father that “mom was cheating on you.”
With all that I expected more of a breakdown than a simple sobbing at a creek, but Clooney shows admirable restraint, only allowing his emotions to flow at appropriate points. Even when confronting the dorky real estate agent who his wife was seeing on the side, Clooney does teeter on the edge of desperate goofiness, yet still saves face.
Clooney narrates us through the tropical world where businessmen look like beach bums, as he tolerates Woodley’s druggie boyfriend (Nick Krause, who gets way too much screen-time), and the meddling members of his family (including the gruff as ever Robert Forester, and the easy going Beau Bridges).
Like with his last 3 films, Payne has adapted a contemporary novel, this time Kaui Hart Hemmings’ 2007 book of the same name, and changed crucial details to make it his own.
It has a lot going for it in its execution, Clooney’s performance, and the lushness of Hawaii is as strikingly shot by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael as the wine country he shot in SIDEWAYS was (no ‘70s-style split screen action though this time), but THE DESCENDANTS is not as sharp or vital as Payne’s previous work *, because of a padded story-line which makes its premise lose power over the course of its nearly 2 hour running time.
There’s also the difficulty of fully feeling sorry for or relating to Clooney’s character. Despite how much of a schlub they try to make him, he’s still George Clooney in all his charms, and it feels too pat that all he and his daughters need to do to heal their pain is to sit together on a sofa, eat ice cream, and watch MARCH OF THE PENGUINS. As comforting a notion as that may be to some people.
In Payne’s most popular film SIDEWAYS, protagonist Giamatti appraises one wine as being “quaffable, but far from transcendent.”
Ditto for THE DESCENDANTS.
* My personal favorite of Payne’s films is ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002) starring Jack Nicholson. Definitely see that if you haven’t already before, (or instead of) THE DESCENDANTS.