The Descendants | Film review
George Clooney plays a grieving husband and overwhelmed father in the latest seriocomic effort from Alexander Payne.
For a filmmaker who’s been compared to Jean Renoir, Alexander Payne has a real affinity for lowbrow humor. This is the guy who once played Kathy Bates’s bare breasts for gross-out laughs and who hinged the climax of his Oscar-winning Sideways on a bit of buck-naked, postcoital slapstick. No one gets comically nude in Payne’s latest, The Descendants, about a Hawaiian lawyer and self-described parental understudy (George Clooney) who finds himself thrust into the role of full-time father after his wife suffers a coma-inducing accident. Yet as with everything the writer-director has made in the wake of 1999’s Election, the film defaults to broad comedy any time things promise to get too heavy or real.
That’s a shame, because the meat of the material—coping with the incapacitation of a loved one—carries serious dramatic potential, especially once Clooney’s Matt makes a discovery that spikes his grief with anger and resentment. Alas, The Descendants does everything in its power to get away from that hospital bed. Like About Schmidt and Sideways, it devolves into a kind of nattering, seriocomic road movie, with Matt and his two hell-raising daughters—tween Scottie (Amara Miller) and teenage Alex (lively newcomer Shailene Woodley)—embarking on a score-settling pilgrimage. Tagging along is Alex’s dopey sorta-boyfriend (Nick Krause), who has the Paynian habit of puncturing dramatic moments with asinine jokey asides.
Dialing back the slickster charisma, Clooney embodies his beleaguered family man with the proper mixture of good intentions and perpetual exasperation. It’s too bad the film also saddles him with mouthfuls of snarky voiceover, as well as a silly rage-jog that would be more at home in Intolerable Cruelty. At least he keeps his clothes on; for Payne, that’s definitely progress.