Even by his lofty standards, George Clooney is having a good year. His latest directorial effort, “The Ides of March,” is an entertaining if somewhat unsuccessful political thriller that has the added benefit of timeliness. His latest starring vehicle is “The Descendants,” a family drama/comedy filmed in Hawaii that finds the suave actor stepping out of his usual comfort zone.
In the film, Clooney’s character, Matt King, faces a barrage of crises. His wife is in an irreversible coma after a tragic boating accident, leaving him no choice but to pull the plug. Meanwhile his teenage daughters are ambivalent toward him, at best. Looming over his domestic troubles is the fate of a 25,000-acre beach front valley, which he oversees with his extended family, who in turn are pressuring him to sell to a real estate agent (Matthew Lillard). Best yet, he soon learns that his wife and said real estate agent were engaged in an affair in the months leading up to her accident.
As the fifth film from Alexander Payne (“Sideways,” “About Schmidt”), “The Descendants” is a complicated and intricate story about one man’s hell of a mid-life crisis. But in spite of its complexity, there aren’t many surprises to be found. The story unfolds precisely as you think it will, and the film’s sleepy, languid pacing doesn’t do much to raise the stakes. But there’s something to admire about Payne’s unpretentious, inconspicuous style, which creates space for moments of genuine emotion.
Payne is often praised for his sense of place and the way his characters reflect or are extensions of their surroundings. “The Descendants” continues this trend in a fashion that’s somewhat disarming. Considering most films set in Hawaii tend to accentuate the lavishness of its landscape, Payne strives to depict our 50th state as just like any other, filled with flawed people who are facing the same problems as those on the mainland.
In other instances, he presents Hawaii as outright dreary: Gray clouds and wet streets are more prominent in “The Descendants” than sand or palm trees, effectively subverting audience expectations and any hope that this might be a sunny story.
Unfortunately, this point is exacerbated by irritating narration provided by Clooney, who vocalizes his brooding character’s inner thoughts so that the audience may ascertain the full brunt of his despair.
One of the oldest rules in cinema is “show, don’t tell.” Payne achieves this splendidly when he lets the camera do the talking. Whenever he opts for Clooney’s bleak inner-monologue—in which he spouts such surly phrases as “Paradise can go f–k itself”—the film veers toward becoming an outright affront to the
Clooney’s casting quickly becomes the film’s saving grace. Playing refreshingly against type, he’s almost unrecognizable as the shlubby, graying and self-doubting Matt. His character’s vulnerability—seen in his awkward interactions with his children and desperate, one-sided arguments with his comatose spouse—is where “The Descendants” finds its footing as a sympathetic human portrait.
Payne, in his previous films, has excelled in mixing pathos with dark comedy. He’s mostly successful here as well, resulting in a film that is a likeable enough addition to his growing filmography.