Alexander Payne’s reputation as a thornily honest and satirically acute, yet essentially humanist director has always been based in his capacity to feed back to his audience carefully cultivated truisms. Swaggering egotists often succeed better than uncertain neurotics and hapless hypocrites; sometimes the older and wiser aren’t really wiser or even nice; people of the left and right often disagree and are sometimes all silly, and so forth. Such truisms are leavened by faux-profound moments of emotional insight, an unmistakeable odour of literary pretension, and an affectation of artistic purpose that can be casually tossed aside for the sake of any old bit of comic incongruity that might goose the slackness of his narratives, like the ludicrous naked man that derailed any pretence of Sideways (2005) to seriousness. The Descendants, his latest, adapted from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, sports a hero, Mike King (George Clooney), who is largely more functional and empathetic than some of his predecessors in the Payne canon. Given that the stunted ethical fibre of the heroes of Election (1999) and Sideways was just about the only interesting aspects of those films, however, Payne finds himself like a young learner swimmer, furiously dog paddling just to keep his head above water in a film that’s overlong and underdeveloped. Mike is often heard in declarative voiceover throughout the film, and early on he delivers a tirade against propositions that living in a “paradise” like the Hawaiian island insulates you from the petty and the painful, but the film quickly swaps such palate-cleansing cynicism to pad itself out with seemingly endless scene-setting brochure shots of the tale’s Hawaiian setting, crowded with pretty local music. The tale gives Clooney another shot at an Oscar through playing another menopausal male befuddled by rapid shifts in his world’s organising principles.
Mike is the descendant, of course, of a union between an American missionary and an Hawaiian princess, back in the colonising days (shades of James Michener’s Hawaii), and one who’s been left as the sole legal trustee of a huge tract of undeveloped land, a precious commodity on the already well-exploited islands. Mike is a lawyer, having lived as if he’s not sitting on top of an inheritance that could make him and his kin stinking rich, as that was his choice to keep his family grounded, following his father’s credo. But it’s a choice that seems be reaping him endless troubles of late. New laws are poised to take the land away, and his extended clan (all known as Cousin This That and Whatever), many of whom are not so well off, and they’re eager for a sale, so Mike agrees to abide by a majority family decision about who to and for how much they will sell. Mike’s wife Elizabeth (Grace A. Cruz) is in a degenerative coma after a boating accident: she is glimpsed at the film’s very outset wearing a look of carefree joy as she rides the waves off the Oahu coast, presumably just prior to the disaster. Subsequently she’s defined and redefined as the kind of lady who can be described as a free spirit or a feckless cow, depending on one’s viewpoint, but the film isn’t really interested in studying this schism. The film concentrates rather on Mike’s attempts to first connect with his sullen, alienating teenage daughters, Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), and then track down his wife’s lover, who proves to be a smug-ugly realtor named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard).
There are many engaging and potentially enriching elements in The Descendants, including the practically Dostoyevskian proximity of mortal crisis and colossal fiscal transaction, in a narrative that offers plentiful opportunities for depicting an hysterical devolution in the modern American family psyche. Which makes its choice to play out along the most obvious and conservative lines all the more frustrating: The Descendants is basically another one of those pseudo-indie movies where family come together to laugh and cry and engage in assorted oddballery in acting out their various catharses. The subplot of the land sale is really just window dressing, designed to give Mike an opportunity to demonstrate his rectitude by suddenly deciding not to sign on the dotted line in spite of his hectoring Cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), and give the tale, which would otherwise be defined as strictly domestic angst, a flavour of cultural import. One aspect that makes The Descendants a slight stand-out from a welter of familial crisis dramedies is that the dying, contentious figure is a mother rather than a father: “You think women can’t do anything wrong?” Mike asks Elizabeth’s grating gal pal Kai (Mary Birdsong) when he confronts her shortly after learning about his wife’s affair. Kai doesn’t want to talk about the affair with Mike when Elizabeth isn’t around to defend herself, and whilst the film sides with Mike to an extent in snorting at this kind of tendentious hypocrisy, the audience is left to circle around an enigmatic Elizabeth who is anything but enigmatic to those who know her, so that whilst the characters wrestle with their feelings towards a complex and irreducible persona, there’s no access for the audience. Rather, reactions are all guided by Mike and Alex in particular. Alex is filled with rage at her mother, trailing a recent history of bad behaviour, and having learnt about the affair long before Mike.
At the outset, before Elizabeth’s doctors confirm her state is irrecoverable, Mike, who describes himself as hitherto the “back-up parent”, is shepherding Scottie, who raises the ire of a schoolmate’s mother (Karen Kuioka Hironaga) after aiming a few mean comments her daughter’s way, and Mike takes Elizabeth to make a ritual apology, a sequence skewering both Mike’s general passivity and one of Payne’s favourite targets, the passive-aggressive tone of contemporary suburban “tolerance”. Scottie’s seemingly nascent pre-adolescent darkness is however elided in making her a stock repository for precocious kid humour, as in her cheery approval of swear words. Woodley’s Alex is a little more substantial: she seems initially to be a variation on all those spuriously angry/contemptuous teen girls that were a dime a dozen in late ‘90s movies and TV shows. But this is leavened a little by Woodley’s cunning in loaning her an edge of perversity, as she becomes something like Mike’s familiar, hanging over his shoulder and egging him on in his search for Elizabeth’s lover, and insisting on getting in on the act herself. Father and daughter finally bond effectively as they work up a plan for Alex to distract Speer’s oblivious wife Julie (Judy Greer) so Mike can confront his nemesis, Speer, who proves to be hardly nefarious, but also clearly possesses all the moral fibre of an egg noodle. Lurking not far beneath the surface of the tale is an interesting dilemma of modern social function: Mike, having attempted to resist letting himself and his family be crucified by a sense of entitlement and sloth, is instead the constant target of resentment because of this, especially from Elizabeth’s crusty, faintly malignant father Scott (Robert Forster), for failing to deliver the leisured gadabout lifestyle he could have, choosing instead to subject his family to the crime of living within means and necessitating his absence in business.
The Descendants is most successful when portraying the characters’ emotional quagmires and their ways of feeling through them, as when Mike tries to rein in Alex’s tirades at her prone mother as he feels it’s the right thing to do, even though he’s doing the same thing when no-one’s around; when, furious and out to strip down Kai’s wilful resistance to his righteous anger, Mike pushes too far without knowing it in informing her that she’s been plastering make-up on what is now practically a corpse, not her friend; and when Mike and Scottie, fetching Alex from the private school on Hawaii her mother exiled her too, find her drunk and acting up, spouting “Fuck Mom!” in her addled and defensive state. The Descendants is least successful when it’s trying to milk the audience’s emotions in set-piece moments, like Alex first learning her mother’s going to die, submerging herself in the pool for a big theatrical moment of pseudo-poetic emoting, Mike’s teary deathbed farewell to Elizabeth, and Scottie’s being told what’s going to happen to her mother via touchy-feely gee-tar scored montage. Even the film’s last scene is so precious in its posed, “casual” catharsis depicting Mike, Alex, and Scottie curling up in front of the television together, that the impact is lost. Payne proves determined to hew to a discursive narrative holding pattern that results in a film at least twenty minutes longer than it should be. Unfortunately, too, the film breaks up the emotional intensity whenever it feels like it, trucking in deadpan humour like a basketball coach calling time outs to give the tale an illusory quality of tragicomic roundedness.
But much of this humour, as usual in Payne, is contrived, especially in making Sid (Nick Krause), the boy Alex chooses for some reason to be her constant companion and buffer zone between herself and the world, a gormless surfer dude. He's present merely and specifically to invest certain scenes with a inapt sensibility, inane enough to laugh at Scott’s wife’s (Barbara L. Southern) dementia and earning a sock in the mouth from Scott, and to present Mike with another frustratingly indecipherable emblem of youth. He’s later partly redeemed as simply a good-natured, preternaturally chilled-out kid, himself recently having lost a parent, but that’s a touch that still doesn’t rescue him from being a contrived screenwriting gimmick. Likewise a scene late in the film when Julie, having learnt of her husband’s affair with Elizabeth, comes to deliver a gauche and hapless deathbed pardon that Mike has to embarrassedly cut short. An earlier moment where Mike kisses Julie on the mouth directly after confronting her husband, is far more elusive and amusing in blending on almost subliminal levels both a conscious vengeful intent mixed with an effervescent emotional clasping at straws that suggests just how unmoored Mike’s feelings are. Yet there remains a curious inspecificity to Mike King as the centre of the drama; his failings are declared rather than portrayed.
More moments like that kiss that could have given The Descendants the eccentric volatility that would have made it fundamentally richer and more affecting, but instead it’s caught in a tone of ambling melancholia. A scene close to the end, where the weepy family cast Elizabeth’s ashes into the sea, reminded me precisely of Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg (2010), an undoubtedly more self-conscious work that nonetheless also makes far deeper incisions into not only a sense of personal eddying within grief, but in connecting it to a larger sense of worldly crisis. The acting, unsurprisingly, buoys the film, from relative neophyte Woodley to the succession of undervalued elder statesmen like Forster, Bridges, and Michael Ontkean, and the unexpectedly but effectively cast Lillard. Clooney is very good for his part, although the promise of The American (2010) to offer him a Once Upon A Time In The West-style trash-job on his spell of playing protagonists with an aura of hangdog emotional bewilderment and essential decency under layers of compromise, has been exposed as false. Instead he and the film are stuck hopelessly in the middle of the road, right in the path of Oscars.