Warning: This isn’t so much a review of The Descendants as a discussion of why it didn’t quite “do it” for me. So I’m assuming that anyone who reads this has already seen the film. In other words: GIANT HONKING SPOILERS AHEAD.
Let me start by giving my Alexander Payne bona fides here: He’s on my shortlist of favorite working directors, and I consider Election and Sideways to be two of my all-time favorite films.
One thing that Payne does so well is give us complex, defiantly unlovable, but impossible not to care about characters. He creates these great American archetypes that nonetheless are thrillingly specific. I’m talking about Miles in Sideways, whose supreme intellectual superciliousness is matched only by his crippling insecurity; or Election’s Tracy Flick, that teacher’s pet on steroids with her crazed politician’s grin; or the regret-fueled everyman, beset by that peculiar American combination of stoicism and mawkishness, of About Schmidt.
But how to sum up the Clooney’s Matt King in The Descendants? He’s sort of a good guy; sort of a good father; he sort of cares about his native Hawaii; he sort of wants to exact revenge on his wife’s lover. . .
Not to suggest that a kind of middling decency isn’t enough to build a work of art on—Arthur Miller, among others, would argue otherwise.
But Matt is a man of inaction. His road trip, his relationships, his very being have a kind of aimlessness to them. What then are we in the audience to hold onto—what’s our takeaway from the film? Schmidt, Flick, and Miles all had one thing in common—delusions of grandeur. The tension (and humor) of those films was often derived from the difference between the character’s myth of self and their reality.
But Matt King has no such illusions. In fact, he’s almost stubbornly matter-of-fact about his own averageness. (“I was the backup parent,” he admits, early in the film.)
As for Clooney, I think he’s in fine form (although he goes a little overboard with Matt’s dorky little running motion—an alpha male trying to affect the body language of a loser).
He’s particularly affecting in two scenes: When he has his little meltdown in his wife’s hospital room and when he spontaneously kisses Judy Greer (playing his romantic rival's wife).
But Clooney is put in the unenviable position of having to anchor a film while playing a man with no discernable character traits. And because of that, when I left The Descendants I wasn’t quite sure what the film was actually about.
How, in particular, are we supposed to feel about Matt hanging onto his family’s land in the end? Is this a noble act of preservation, a gift to his daughters (his own descendants, as it were) and the people of Hawaii? Or is it an act of revenge against his dying wife’s lover, who would serve to profit wildly from the sale? Is it both? Can it be both?
I think Payne’s pulling his punches here and elsewhere and it reflects his larger ambivalence about the character. To me, it’s okay for the audience to feel ambivalent, but not the director. Which is why, although The Descendants is certainly a good film, in my opinion, it’s not a great one.
Okay, have at me.