The Descendants - NYFF 2011
Death and dying play a big part in cinema's current zeitgeist. From apocalyptic films like "Melancholia" to cancer-themed comedies like "50/50" there is a pressing dialogue of facing up to the reality of certain death with some amount of courage and dignity. So it is that Alexander Payne struggles to make funny the pending death of a comatose adulterous wife. Her husband Matt King (George Clooney) must facilitate a socially responsible passage for the mother of his two daughters. Hawaii’s sun-kissed shores and verdant foliage supply the setting.
Perhaps the best thing "The Descendants" has to offer is its depiction of Hawaii as a place like any other that only appears as a tropical paradise on the surface. Payne has mastered a certain style of deadpan humor exemplified in a scene where Clooney's suddenly informed cuckold runs down a suburban Hawaiian street in sandals. Matt is anxious to question his friends about their knowledge of the man his wife was cheating on him with before she was critically injured in a waterskiing accident that introduced the movie. There’s a slapstick air to Clooney’s gawky physicality and the sound of flip-flops hitting asphalt. Still, it’s a scene you feel like you’ve already seen a hundred times before. There’s numbness to the humor. Clearly the filmmaker believes his juxtaposition of plot revelation and character motivation have an inertia of latent comic import, but the sequence calls attention to the filmmaker’s intention and away from the story at hand.
Matt King is a native Hawaiian whose family ancestry traces back for several generations. A major aspect of the plot involves Matt’s powerful position as the primary holder of a land trust of 25,000 acres of protected land on Kauai. The family is pressing Matt to endorse a sell-off of the lush terra firma to developers who will permanently alter the landscape with whatever concrete-and-steel structures they deem most profitable. The sudden demand for Matt to act as a communicative dad to his 11-and-17-year-old daughters coincides with his desire to act responsibly in relation to the precious land he controls. His ability to make peace with his wife’s indiscretions and come to grips with her fate as it relates to their family and friends brings an added amount of character development. From a dramatic standpoint Matt’s transition to maturity doesn’t have much to push against. When he makes a controversial decision about the land trust in the presence of the other share holders the filmmaker doesn’t deem it necessary to show how the character handles the fall out in the moment. Since Matt’s wife is in a coma, there isn’t much for the grieving husband to do other than forgive her her trespasses. The entire narrative exists in a corner-painted bubble of predetermined logic.
Alexander Payne is certainly a competent director. He knows just where to put the camera. But as a writer he remains stuck in a navel-gazing rut. “About Schmidt” (2002) fell prey to Payne’s sluggish sense of ponderous melancholy humor. “Sideways” was his best film because he stepped outside his need to gaze upon ugliness for its own sake. In “The Descendants,” Payne presents melodrama as comedy. Nothing is as sad or as funny as it pretends. You might want to laugh or just die trying.
Rated R. 115 mins. (C) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)