It’s been seven long years since writer/director Alexander Payne gifted the world Sideways and walked away with an Oscar. He returns this year with the family drama The Descendants. Describing my thoughts on the film is going to be challenging because I am going to try to explain why you should love it, and why I didn’t. There’s a popular expression when one feels apathetic toward something and it goes a little like “meh.” I do not feel this way about Payne’s latest… not entirely…
George Clooney stars as Matt King. Matt’s wife is in a coma after a freak boat accident and he is struggling to care for his two daughters. Meanwhile, he has a major real estate decision to make, which everyone seems intent on badgering him about. And he discovers his wife was cheating on him, too. All of this takes place in Hawaii. As Clooney notes in voiceover: it might be paradise, but that doesn’t absolve anyone from the harsh realities of life.
Like he’s done his entire 5-film career, Payne brilliantly sidesteps convention with simple–but important–touches. Clooney’s cuckold father doesn’t whine or bemoan his station, but internalizes the pain, confusion, and sadness he’s going through. His daughters don’t feel like caricatures of youth, but real people from a real place. I don’t frequent ABC Family (except sometimes for my real job), so I was unfamiliar with Shailene Woodley, who plays the eldest daughter, but she does a great job of acting ordinary. The matter of fact image of Clooney’s decaying wife, the subtle subduing of Hawaii’s beauty, and the precise dialogue all distinguish The Descendants as something unique.
Clooney continues to impress with a top-notch performance. You can sense what he’s thinking and feeling through the lumbering walk he adopts. You never question the charming and slick Hollywood star as this aging, hard luck, put-upon dad. It’s quietly satisfying. The movie has some funny moments, but is really more emotional and dramatic. It’s hard not to be when dealing with life and death issues. The film strikes a graceful tone throughout.
With everything I’ve said, you’d expect me now to either tell you how this is one of the best movies of the year or to list what’s wrong with the picture. Well, what’s difficult is I can’t do either of those things. I can honestly find no fault in this film. I’ve seen some complaints about the subplot or the in-and-out narration or the teenagers being introduced as clichés only to be redeemed, but none of that bothered me. I think that stuff was done purposefully and it worked. It is executed with the utmost care of many talented people working at the top of their game. But I still feel no passion for the movie. Again, it’s not apathy. I really, really, really liked this picture. I would watch it again, and enjoy it again. It just didn’t grab me. It’s a rare assessment for me, but this is a me problem and not the film’s fault at all. The last time I came to this conclusion was for The Diving Bell & The Butterfly, and a lot of people love that movie, so make of that what you will. If you see The Descendants (I hope you do) and you love it, I’ll understand. I wonder, though… if people watch and share my lack of zeal, does that mean something actually is wrong with the film?