Directed by Alexander Payne. Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller and Nick Krause. 115 minutes. 14A
The Descendants has everything going for it: a famous leading man (Clooney), an acclaimed writer and director (Payne) and a beautiful setting (Hawaii). But somehow, all of these great things combined make for a very unimpressive film.
Matt King (Clooney) is a lawyer and self-proclaimed “back-up parent” who hasn’t paid much attention to his family for the last couple of years. He’s been preoccupied with handling a land deal—he must soon sell off the large, pristine plot of family land he’s been entrusted with—but when his wife, Elizabeth, is in a boating accident and falls into a permanent coma, Matt realizes his mistakes and wants nothing more than for Elizabeth to wake up. That is, until he finds out she’s been cheating on him and was planning to get a divorce.
This is where the movie should get really good. Here’s a man who must confront the imminent death of his wife as well as her infidelity, but instead of witnessing him grapple with his conflicting emotions all we see is an angry husband and overwhelmed dad determined to track down his wife’s lover. It’s hard to feel emotionally connected to the character who no longer seems to care that his wife is dying. In fact, it’s hard to feel connected to any of the characters, which is surprising seeing as Payne is the writer who made us fall in love with an unlikeable Paul Giammatti in Sideways. The real problem with Payne’s latest is that much of it feels contrived. The characters aren’t fully developed, relationships are explained in a word or two and the plot moves along too easily to be fully engrossing. That’s not to say you might not shed a tear, but this film lacks the heart to really affect the viewer.
To top it off, the film moves at an agonizingly slow pace. For 115 minutes we watch as Matt reconnects with his daughters, Scottie (Miller), 10, and Alexandra (Woodley), 17, and tells family and friends it’s time to say goodbye to Elizabeth. The “action” begins when Matt and his kids, along with Alex’s dim-witted friend, Sid (Krause), set out to find Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), the real estate agent Elizabeth had been “seeing.” But don’t get too excited, there’s not much of a climax and the wild goose chase for Speer is interrupted every now and then by family obligations and that land deal Matt can’t forget about.
Despite the length and predictable plot twists, there were some good performances in the film. Clooney works with what he’s got and gives a pretty stellar performance. Though the Hawaiian-shirts and flip-flops are a bit camp, it’s nice to see Clooney play a man who doesn’t have it all together. Shailene Woodley also does an impressive job as the foul-mouthed Alex. The scenes with her younger sister are endearing and she proves she has a greater emotional range than one would expect from a Secret Life of the American Teenager star.
The Descendants is not what you would expect from Alexander Payne or from all the hype it’s received from critics. Though it might make you reach for a box of tissues, this film is too obvious and too long to be worth your theatre money. C+
Dream cast: Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, Mia Wasikowska, Saoirse Ronan, Emma Thompson