The Descendants is a collection of entertaining – sometimes even great – moments that never comes together. It’s like I kept waiting for something to happen; that typical Alexander Payne-like swerve that throws the entire film under a new light, but it doesn’t happen. Nothing happens in this movie. And I’m not a person who needs something to happen in a movie for it to be entertaining or worth my time (one of my favorite movies is Stranger Than Paradise where not a lot happens), but there has to be some kind of mystery or intrigue or ambiguity about these characters that keeps us interested in following their journey. Everything just seems kind of telegraphed from the first moments of the lazy voiceover to the bedside emotional scenes that resound with a speciousness found in the worst offenders of the Oscar bait season. Payne seems more interested in holding the hands of the audience through every phony step of the way.
There are moments that work – moments that remind us of some of Payne’s ability to really quiet down a scene and really look at two misunderstood characters (the scene between Miles and Mya in Sideways talking about what kind of wine they like as it doubles as a description of themselves is the best example, and the height of his career as a director) –but these moments never coalesce into an interesting, emotional whole. I never felt moved by the film even though it so badly wanted to move me. Everything was so fabricated – so prescribed – that I was never given the ability to feel emotionally drained or be moved by the movie because it was telling me that those moments were coming before they happened.
Characters only exist to remind us of what a good guy Matt (George Clooney) is. For the first time Payne is without longtime writing partner Jim Thomas, and I think instead of writing a character that we aren’t sure about – someone who is simultaneously misanthropic and loveable…essentially the quintessential Payne character – we are offered up a rather bland martyr (the whole subplot of the film – whether he’s going to sell some land his family owns to a corporation or give it back to the people – is superfluous and unsurprising when it resolves itself) who does things that I think the movie wants us to see as bad (cursing and yelling at his comatose wife) but really just come off as a nice guy letting off some steam.
The movie has about 10 different ideas it introduces through voiceover, but instead of following up on any of those story threads, the movie just quickly sweeps them to the side and we’re off to the next scene as if nothing was ever the matter. It’s like The Descendants wanted to be a movie about pain without causing the audience to reflect on pain. It’s too safe and prescribed which is odd coming from someone like Payne who has always been so good at mixing the poignant with cynical.
Clooney is the film’s saving grace (although I did quite like the washed-out cinematography by Phedon Papamichael) and keeps it from falling into being a really bad experience. There is one scene in particular (pictured above) when Matt finds out some information about the land sale that throws a monkey wrench in the whole thing; it is one of the film's numerous examples of a perfectly acted and constructed scene that is frustrating because it never felt like it really coalesced with any other scenes in the movie. It's so well shot in close-up by Papamichael with the perfect juxtaposing image of a cheery Hawaiian band playing in the background (just out of focus but aurally in the foreground). It just kind of sits, though, and no matter how good a scene is, no one scene (not even one as good as this) can save such an incoherent, sloppily edited movie.
Despite the fact that Payne felt the need to vilify a comatose woman, have a father who was about as cliché and one-note as the idiot stoner (who, to nobody’s surprise I’m sure, is actually a smart, self-aware guy who shares the film’s best scene with Clooney as the two have a brief talk in the middle of the night), and a daughter who is – gasp – at a special Academy because of her past drug problems, Clooney does his damdest to elevate The Descendants to something beyond what it really is. Clooney is a star and his brilliant performance (even more pronounced by the film’s perfect use of close-up) comes off as effortless here – which is all the more frustrating that emotional payoff (which are wonderfully acted) falls so flat thanks to the uncharacteristically poor directing of Payne.
The ending shot is so appropriate. It’s perfect because it’s the perfect Payne ending: open-ended and understated. It’s also appropriate because it kind of encapsulates everything that irked me about this movie. Sure, it’s believable that Matt would be on the couch with his daughters eating ice cream (again, it’s a sweet shot to end the movie on, and I’m glad Payne chose that shot) by the end of their journey, but like everything else in the movie, it just kind of hangs there like a really good isolated moment without it really feeling like it’s a scene that is meant to elicit something more than what’s there. I never felt an emotional release during the scene; all it got out of me was a smile of admiration for being a final shot that works.
Perhaps I’m trying to make the film something it’s not, but I felt like the movie – it is, after all, an Alexander Payne movie starring George Clooney – was just a big disappointment; a film that kept introducing things without ever paying them off, and, most importantly, a film that seemed too intent on letting the audience off easy by holding their hand through every “difficult” scene of the movie. It’s just too incoherent a narrative trying to work within a problematic structure for it to be the great movie so many critics are proclaiming it to be.