The Critics: The Descendants

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Dir Alexander Payne

3 ½ out of 5

The career path of director Alexander Payne has thus far seen his films meet with increasing acclaim from within the industry as the backdrop for the action within them has become further removed from his native Omaha. The Nebraska-bound black comedies Citizen Ruth and Election were eclipsed in ‘buzz’ generated by his subsequent males-in-crisis road trip dramedies About Schmidt and Sideways.

After a seven-year hiatus Payne looks to have continued both trends with his latest effort, The Descendants, which has already landed Golden Globes for best drama and best actor for George Clooney. Although this is the first of Payne’s films not to be written with his usual partner Jim Taylor, there are strong surface similarities between its plot and those of his previous two films.

Clooney plays Matt King, who we are introduced to through the self-effacing narration which is a familiar feature of Payne’s protagonists. He has the twin benefits of a successful career as a lawyer in Hawaii and the sole executive trusteeship, inherited from distant indigenous ancestors, of vast swathes of virgin Hawaiian land, which he intends to sell imminently to fill the coffers of a largely faceless brood of extended family members. However, much like Jack Nicholson’s widower in About Schmidt, he is plunged into a quest for self-understanding and meaning when a boating accident leaves his wife deep in a coma and unable to provide an explanation for the affair which Matt discovers a month after her incapacitation.

I cannot really fault Clooney for his performance and he lends plenty of pathos to the movie’s quieter moments, but the dialogue and character arc afforded to Matt King falls short of the more comical and redemptive journey of Schmidt. As King’s narrative interjections appear fitfully in the first half of the film and have dissolved by the second half, it seems they were imposed during Payne’s rewrite of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s script. They attempt to establish a central conceit of King as a confused and dysfunctional individual which is a jarring and distracting addition to the plot.

We are asked to believe that Matt is a characteristically tight-fisted and aloof individual who has an ill-formed self-image and a strained relationship with his 10- and 17-year-old daughters, a self-confessed ‘back-up parent’. But the character that we see onscreen is in all instances an assured negotiator of difficult circumstances and a considerate, understanding parent. This manufacturing of dramatic tension which is then brushed aside is problematic and exhibited also in the initial descriptions of his daughters as wild-children unsettled within their family, countervailed by their portrayal in the rest of the film as resourceful, balanced people.

There were plenty of things to enjoy about The Descendants – outwith the narrator’s suggestions, the journey of the central trio is edifying and sympathetic enough, complemented by the emotive Hawaiian soundtrack, the nuanced portrait of the Aloha State itself and strong supporting characters consistently confounding our expectations of their personas. But it does seem that in attempting to add his own stylistic watermarks to the story Payne muddies the waters of characterization – which is some misstep in a heavily character-driven piece like The Descendants.

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