I recently saw “The Descendants” at the Napa Valley Film Festival. I had high expectations. What’s not to like about either George Clooney or Alexander Payne? Both of them are very talented entertainment superstars. However, neither George Clooney’s pretty face nor Alexander Payne’s mastery of comedy and pathos (“Election”, “About Schmidt”, and “Sideways”, to say nothing of the hit TV series “Hung”) are sufficient to render this movie anything but mildly entertaining. It’s decent, but not great comedy or acting.
Clooney’s Matt King, a workaholic, emotionally distant Honolulu attorney and land baron, is descended from royal Hawaiian blood. His great-great-grandmother was a Hawaiian princess who married a haole (non-Hawaiian). As the executor of an enormous land trust of beachfront property, Matt must decide to keep the land unspoiled or sell it to developers so that his relatives can reap millions of dollars from the proceeds.
But Matt’s major problem is with his family. A boating accident has left his wife comatose, challenging his negligible parenting skills. Their two daughters are a ten-year old girl, Scottie (Amara Miller, a scene-stealing newcomer), and a stereotypically sullen teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), whose behavior has landed her in boarding school. Matt is blindsided not only by grief, two daughters who need emotional support, but also by betrayal.
What did I like about “”The Descendants”? First, I liked the lived-in feeling of seeing Hawaii’s real residents–some of whom are scruffy, overweight, and wear muumuus instead of teeny-weeny bikinis. This is not the postcard version of Hawaii. The Hawaiian sound track reinforces the island culture. Second, small roles by some of the supporting actors have the dazzling portions of the dialog, especially the father-in-law (Robert Forster) and Judy Greer, whose scenes are memorable: subtle facial expressions, suggesting a nobility and integrity of spirit. The wise but fragile character portrayed in a disarming way by Amara Miller keeps this film from devolving into TV soap. Flashes of humor in some of the dialog between Clooney’s character and the two daughters are hilarious.
However, it is the scenes in which Clooney dominates the screen, which shred even the thinnest threads of plausibility. In one scene Matt King, after saying goodbye to the last of his friends, drops to his knees outside his home’s circular driveway. This canned acting gesture, purportedly conveying intense emotion, has been overdone and is overwrought– just a lazy shortcut for anguish and grief, like throwing a glass across the room to depict anger. Clooney and Payne–you are both much better than that!
The Descendants has received widespread critical acclaim. The film scored an approval rating of 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert gave the film a perfect four stars. I would give it two stars– light fluff for the rainy night when you want to be entertained with a forgettable, but decent flick.