Film Review – The Descendents (Second Take)
Director Alexander Payne likes to take serious situations, combined with great characters and humor, to get people involved in his stories and that trend continues in his newest film, The Descendents. The strong characters and dark humor abound in the film, though here there are times when it is too funny.Matt (George Clooney) is a successful lawyer and trustee of a large plot of land in Hawaii, due to a long family history in the state. He is proud of this history, but now, due to a term limit of the trust, his family will lose the land in seven years unless they sell it. The bigger issue on his mind, however, is that his wife, Elizabeth, has just been in an accident and is in a coma. So now he must cope with his daughters, seventeen-year-old troubled child Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), by himself. When the doctors inform him that his wife will never wake up and that due to her will she will be taken off her feeding tube and respirator and will die very soon, he must now tell all the family and friends. This weight is doubly added to when he discovers his wife was having an affair and was planning to leave him.
Despite the serious subject matter, there is a light touch to much of what is happening. There is a line between the seriousness of the issues of the mother’s soon-to-be death and infidelity, with the humor of the dialogue and the characters’ reactions that many times works very well. The humor makes the scenes less intense and allows you to take in more of what is happening without being seriously depressed—especially in interactions with the mother, when she is comatose but the family all have moments of anger (usually with humorous undertones) at what she has done. Then there are the tender moments, the crying, and attempts to reconcile everything they are feeling. But then at times, the movie loses some of the intensity with the overuse of humor. The switches between intensity and humor can be jarring and at times feel forced. The family goes through that in many of their interactions with each other, many times using the fact that they are waiting to tell Scottie what is happening.
This switching happens within the characters as well. Alexandra starts as the troublesome daughter, but when she finds out that her mom is dying, she turns that side off quite quickly and is then there immediately to help out her dad. With the seriousness of the situation, that is a possible response, but the suddenness of changes like these are, at times, disconcerting and take you out of the film. Much of this feels like the script trying too hard to have it both ways with its characters in keeping them as balanced people.
Though not as pertinent to the film, the land deal has its place. especially in how Matt deals with different ideas within the family, with some of his cousins pushing for the deal and others wanting to keep the land. He looks at what is best for his family. He has wealth, but this will keep him and his family wealthy for life, but it is also the family’s legacy. It is never heavy-handed, just something else on his mind, though the ending of what he will do is predictable. Plus, the way the land deal interacts with the issues of his wife are a bit of a stretch. When a decision is made, the end result is less interesting than the issues he is wrestling with.
Clooney has wanted to work with Payne since Sideways, campaigning for Thomas Haden Church’s role, but Payne found him to be too big a star for the role. There he might have been a distraction, but here we need someone who can create a presence that is hard to ignore; since Matt is almost in every scene, he needs to capture our attention at all times, and Clooney does that exceptionally well. This is not a showy performance, and while Clooney being a big name is part of why he works, it has more to do with the kind of energy he brings; he can switch from being emotional to humorous and dark with a quick switch that makes it look easy. He is not alone with his skill; Shailene Woodley, as Alexandra, is in many ways Clooney’s partner in all that is going on and keeps herself on par while sharing the screen with Clooney like a pro.
There are moments of greatness in here with the acting and storytelling about how this family tries to deal with the entire situation. However, the film has an almost schizophrenic feel to it at times with unnecessary humor and the predictability of the side plot dealing with the family trust, making it a mixed bag. The ending though has a nice sense of the finality of the situation. The journey was bumpy but there was never a dull moment.
Final Grade: B