Director and writer Alexander Payne has previously brought us some great character-studies based on modern American novels: Election, About Schmidt, Sideways. The latest, The Descendants, starring George Clooney, is good. But it did not grab or move me the way the others have.
Clooney plays Matt King, a descendant of Hawaiian royalty, tasked with selling a hereditary parcel of land on behalf of his many cousins. But even as a fractious family debate is going on over what to do with the land, King’s wife lands in the hospital in a coma, a result of a boating accident.
King has two daughters, a teen and middle-schooler (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller), who are acting out at the beginning of the story. By the end of the story, they have been mostly forgotten, as has Sid (Nick Krause), the older daughter’s boy (space) friend, who seems to suffer from foot-in-mouth disease, but whose strange attachment to the King family has a deep and emotional explanation.
The family elements of the story end up taking a background a different plotline. After learning his wife is not going to come out of her coma, Matt King learns his wife was having an affair with a real estate agent named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). Will King confront Speer? Will King give Speer a chance to visit the dying wife? And what will he do when he learns that Speer is also connected to the decision over what to do with the inherited land?
As interesting as these questions are, I wish that other elements of the story had been developed with equal depth. Clooney’s King is a weak protagonist, one who often avoids conflict, making the plot move slower than I’d like. The story is masochistic in the way it dwells on the grief of the characters and avoids opportunities for humor. For example, it looks like there was a funny movie unto itself about the various cousins squabbling over the land deal. The moments where Clooney gets to use his gift for physical comedy — sprinting in flip-flops, peeking around hedges — seem tonally out of place with the rest of the film.
The resolution of the plot about the land was unsatisfactory to me. Did King make that choice because it was better for Hawaii or was he back-justifying rather than acknowledge he wanted to screw over Speer? And if that’s so, did he not reconsider given how his decision would affect Speer’s wife Julie (Judy Greer in a wonderful performance)?
I can see why people are buzzing about this movie. Even if I wish it had a little more humor and wry human observation and less wallowing in grief and jealousy, I can see the other point of view. The scene where King confronts Speer in his vacation cabin and the scene where Julie Speer visits to confront the woman who almost broke up her family are miniature masterpieces of drama and comedy.
I guess my ultimate problem is that King’s symbolic decision over what to do with the land comes in the wrong place in the movie. He needed to see Julie forgive his wife, then we needed another scene of him forgiving himself — realizing that the dissolution of his marriage and family are partly due to his (over)emphasis on work. Only then would it be dramatically satisfying to see an internal change represented by the external action of him not signing over the deed to the land.
Tying Speer into the deal, while it makes a neat ethical dilemma, ultimately distracts from what the decision about the land needs to symbolically represent for Clooney’s character. The idea that he’ll be spending the next seven years tied up in legal wrangling is the anti-thesis of a realization that spending time with family is what’s really important. Showing a scene of him and his daughters all watching March of the Penguins does not offset this.
The movie makes all the motions of a having a happy ending without actually delivering one. And much undue hatred is directed toward the wife character — who after all is in a coma, and as one of her friends points out, cannot defend herself. Knowing that Payne’s marriage with actress Sandra Oh dissolved a few years ago, it is hard not to read the misogynistic structure of the plot as a self-serving defense of Payne’s own role in a failed relationship. Then again, the controlling wife/girlfriend was also a theme in About Schmidt and Election. So perhaps I over-reach in bringing in the filmmaker’s unknowable private thoughts and emotions.
All I know is that the only Oscar buzz that I would start for this movie would be for Judy Greer’s supporting performance, which in three scenes contains more that I recognize as real human reactions than the rest of the film combined.