I enjoy Alexander Payne’s movies, but there comes a time in each of them where I come dangerously close checking out. Most of the time it’s just because somewhere in the middle there is a stretch that is mostly void of the drama and comedy that elevated the rest of the film. THE DESCENDANTS does not break that trend as it is once again a very good movie from Alexander Payne that falls short of greatness due to a lack of interesting or engaging moments during the halfway point.
Matt King (George Clooney) and the rest of his family are the trustees of a slice of heaven on the islands of Hawaii that they are prepped to sell. Matt has other things to deal with though as his wife was in a terrible boat accident and has fallen into a coma that the doctors inform she will never awake from and her will states she does not want her life artificially sustained. A series of tough decisions await Matt as he has to break the news to friends and family while struggling with if he will approve the sale of their land or hold on to it permanently and forfeit a great deal of money. To add to his struggles he is left to be a parent to his young daughters to which he’s been very distant from over the years and the realization that his dying wife has been unfaithful to him.
The hard hitting truth of THE DESCENDANTS is the emotional weight that comes across from people attempting to deal with the coming loss of a loved one and vast array of feelings people go through that’s multiplied when something like infidelity enters the picture. It’s those different sets of emotions ranging from sadness to anger that THE DESCENDANTS portrays extremely well but at some point the film lingers a little too long on a feeling of being somewhere in-between that the time felt as if it was overstaying its welcome. Luckily once the film marches towards the end it returns to an emotional resonance that pulled me back on board.
Clooney is great as always and quite funny at times, but he also nails the more frustrated and angry moments with conviction without ever going over the top. Shailene Woodley also stands out that people may recognize from Secret Life of the American Teen, but here she’s playing a character far and away from her character on that show. It’s almost as if Woodley took years of holding back on a “family friendly” show to drop as many F-bombs and any other curse word she could think of just to get it out of her system. She gives a great deal of emotion in her dialogue and uses her angsty teen persona to better use here than in any ad I’ve seen for Secrecy Life of the American Teen.
Even when the films started to make me drift off in the middle I could still at least recognize the great writing that was on display. I can’t help but send out props to co-writer Jim Rash from one of my favorite current TV shows Community- he’s in good company thought with Director Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon also sharing writing credits. The voiceover for the first part of the film I will admit was painful when it kicked in although I understand its need at the beginning to get a lot of information out there so you can enjoy the rest of the film.
There are moments where I really loved THE DESCENDANTS but others where I found myself checking in and out of certain scenes. I really dug the presentation of the Hawaiian cultures and the beautiful scenery on display that made me want to pack my bags and move out there ASAP. Clooney is as strong as ever but never upstages his co-stars especially the young Woodley or even an extremely brief role from Judy Greer later on. THE DESCENDANTS is a film that I feel deserves all the love bestowed on it yet I can’t fault anyone for anything negative feelings they hold against it. It’s a trademark type of film Payne is known for with moments of laugh out loud comedy but also moments of severe depression that sometimes produces an effective if unstable bond.
Reviewed By: Luke (@CrummyLuke on Twitter)