Alexander Payne is often credited as one of the most important and influential figures in modern Hollywood and the fact that The Descendants is only his 5th full film lays testimony to his outstanding talent. It’s been 7 years since Payne blew audiences and critics away with his surprise hit Sideways and we’ve all been waiting on eager toes for his latest outing and finally it has arrived.
Whilst The Descendants isn’t a bad film, it feels like Payne has purposely set out to pull at the heartstrings and has forgotten the power of subtly.
The Descendants follows Matt King (George Clooney), a wealthy lawyer whose wife is currently in a coma following a tragic boating accident. Matt regards himself as ‘the back up parent’ and is often left in the wake of his daughters’ destructive behaviour, creating a fractured relationship between the family. As if his family life wasn’t enough of an issue King is about to make the biggest choice of his career that won’t only affect him, but his local area.
Upon watching a few Payne films it’s easy to see the way he satirically portrays America and The Descendants is no different to his other films. Based in Hawaii (more specifically Honolulu) which is a beautiful background, with a beautiful wash of naturally eccentric colours (sapphire blues, emerald greens) ironically contrasts Matt Kings’ emotional turmoil. However, this could have been an especially effective device if used subtly, but King actually explains the ironic link in an extended sequence of dialogue. From the moment that happens you can already see Payne linking up the future ’emotional dominoes’ readying to knock them, but this time without a distinct lack of subtly. It’s like an episode of Eastenders in Hawaii; melodramatic to the point of muting an emotional response.
However, in fairness elements of dark humor have risen nicely to the surface and whilst they don’t always come across in an obvious manner to the audience, the fact that Payne hasn’t removed them entirely is reason enough to praise the film. There’s a couple of shot-reverse-shots between members of the grieving community and Elizabeth King (Matt’s coma induced wife) that are darkly funny, I found myself giggling quietly almost as if I was in shame but couldn’t resist the humor. But sometimes it’s not just the dark comedy that gets the audience laughing, the script has moments of sharp wit and funny one-liners that relieve the audience of the faux melodramatic nature of the film.
It’s not hard to ignore the choir of critics praising Clooney’s performance in The Descendants. To a degree they are right to praise Clooney. It’s a nice a little subversion of his tried and tested cool man, especially when he’s screaming at his wife as she lies there unconscious. However, bar the few moments of explicit emotional content, one could arguably say that Clooney is still playing the restrained cool man. Nevertheless he plays the role very, very well. Is it an Oscar winning performance though? I wouldn’t say so. However, the younger members of the cast seemed to have been ignored due to the tsunami of hype surrounding Clooney and I must say both Scottie King (Mr King’s 10 year old rebel-without-a-cause daughter played by Amara Miller) and Alex King (King’s 17 year old daughter played by Shailene Woodley) are played beautiful by their actresses. This comment is especially relevant to Shailene Woodley as Alex King. I felt her performance and ultimate growth as a character propelled the narrative forward and was easily the most interesting character in the film.
Overall I would say The Descendants isn’t a bad film by any stretch of anyone’s imagination. It is a beautifully shot, well acted melodrama. However, it seems Payne, this time round hasn’t quite created a strong enough emotional core to knock the audience flat out with and this isn’t helped by his distinct lack of subtly. However, to its credit, it is near the apex of the over-saturated genre that is ‘Indie Comedy-Drama’ and considering how many films fall under that genre, that’s no bad thing.
Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, Jay Crosbie (January ’12)