Review: The Descendants (2011)


As treacly family deathbed dramas go, The Descendants is remarkably predictable and not all that moving, searching so desperately for human truth that it ultimately rings artificial. I sat there watching great actors perform a by-the-numbers screenplay that thinks it’s far more virtuous and profound than it actually is, waiting to be struck by a stiff smack of truth that the story never finds. This is, very simply, a standard-order weepie with overstated introspection and lukewarm family drama.

I’m not sure what’s more shocking – that this tepid effort comes from a brilliant screenwriter like Alexander Payne, or that the critical community has so affectionately embraced its very mild charms. The Descendants has been a critical darling since its September debut at the Telluride Film Festival and has been one of the consensus Oscar front-runners ever since. But this is a thoroughly minor-key work that tells more than it shows and seems notably disconnected from both its characters and the audience. It also seems curiously opportunistic, like it is mounted not to tell a true and affecting story but rather to prey on the emotions of moviegoers who expect greatness from the likes of Alexander Payne and George Clooney. That effort is an apparent success; the film itself is absolutely not.

Typically, a Payne film is tenderhearted but razor-sharp, full of vicious satire and darker implications. The Descendants, however, is completely edgeless, curiously absent of suggestion and subtlety. It is narratively clunky and thematically earnest to a fault. Indeed, it is just about as neutered as Clooney’s character, Matt King, a Hawaii realtor whose wife has been rendered comatose in a Jet Ski accident. Matt is completely distraught over his wife’s critical condition despite being emotionally disconnected from her for years prior. He is also detached from his two daughters; the youngest, Scottie (Amara Miller), is a precocious and impressionable 10-year-old, and the eldest, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), is so aimless and defiant she was sent to a boarding school. Matt has been an absentee father and yearns to connect with his girls in the wake of his wife’s tragic accident. We know this because Matt tells us – in narration so thick and blatant that he sometimes literally tells us his moment-to-moment thoughts. The narration dwindles as the story progresses, but the film consistently paints a broad picture, even its silences overtly proclaiming what we’re supposed to feel rather than subtly drawing us in.

Such unrefined character strokes are especially startling considering that Payne’s last film, 2004’s Sideways, was beautifully evocative, suggesting tremendous emotional pain beneath its more overt and uproarious comedy. The Descendants wanders in a tonal no-man’s-land, explicitly stating its drearier emotions and barely registering on a comedic scale. We’re left with a very flimsy emo-drama that assumes its content is powerful enough to glide past shallow characterizations and obvious narrative arcs. Everything is on the surface, completely expected and utterly unsurprising.

The story hinges on the revelation – heavily promoted in the film’s marketing – that Matt’s wife was engaged in an affair leading up to her accident. Naturally, the news sends Matt into an emotional tailspin. He engages in a ham-fisted investigation to find his wife’s suitor, in an attempt to come to terms with her betrayal and somehow reconnect with his daughters. Clooney is good but not great in the role many have incorrectly labeled as his best. The fault doesn’t lie with Clooney himself; the material simply doesn’t allow for a great deal of nuance. As the rebellious older daughter, Woodley is truly great, but she too is limited within the confines of a screenplay so clueless in dealing with grief and family dynamics that we are frequently subjected to sequences where each character unburdens his/her emotions in soliloquies spoken aloud to the comatose mother. These scenes are awkward at best and downright silly at worst.

A subplot involving the lucrative sale of a precious family land plot for which Matt is the trustee is completely distracting and entirely unnecessary, unfolding in a graceless, convenient fashion that would be right at home in a ‘90s-era TV sitcom. This film is a direct antithesis to Clooney’s last major flirtation with Oscar, in Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, which pulled the rug out from under traditional expectations at every turn and deepened its emotional impact as a result. By contrast, The Descendants seems an eerie narrative regression, back to when stories and characters could fit inside a tidy box to satisfy the lowest common denominator.

47/100 - The Descendants is an awkward and transparent grab for the emotions of unsuspecting audiences.

Jason McKiernan

I married into the cult of cinema at a very young age - I wasn't of legal marriage age, but I didn't care. It has taken advantage of me and abused me many times. Yet I stay in this marriage because I'm obsessed and consumed. Don't try to save me -- I'm too far gone.