Movie Review – The Descendants

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The Descendants (2011)
Written by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash
Directed by Alexander Payne

It would take six years after Sideways before Alexander Payne released another film. His longest gap to date between movies. During that time, Payne would get divorced from his wife Sandra Oh; they were together for around six years, married for three. I am no psychoanalyst, and everything I say is complete speculation, but…it sure does seem like the divorce did not sit well with Payne. I say that because from this point on, women, who appeared to have a special place in his previous work, suddenly take on a much darker tone. This film and the next two all feature female characters that are “nags” and absurdly vulgar for no apparent reason other than to add levity to the movie?

Matt King (George Clooney) is a lawyer in Honolulu whose life is going through a lot of tumult. Matt and his cousins are descendants of a prominent Hawaiian family and own a large plot of land in Kauai. Because most of them have poorly managed their inheritances, the land can no longer be handled by them. The majority of the family has decided to sell, knowing that their family’s land will be sectioned off and transformed into a place for tourism and consumption. Matt is going to vote in favor of the plan but does have some misgivings. A boating accident has left Matt’s wife Elizabeth in a coma. He’s now directly raising their youngest child, Scottie (Amara Miller), who is showing typical signs of a child in distress. The Kings’ eldest child, Alex (Shailene Woodley), is acting out too and wants her dad to acknowledge how poorly their mom had been treating him. In all this, Matt must learn to let go of some things while holding onto what is most important.

Much like Payne’s other works, this is a small-scale drama. While it takes place in the Hawaiian islands, I didn’t feel the film took too much advantage of its setting. There are a few beautiful landscape shots, but Hawaii never feels like it is being presented with the same care that Payne likes to photograph his native Nebraska. Instead, Payne focuses his camera on the human drama unfolding, letting the landscape stay as a backdrop. The only time it becomes a prominent part of the story is when Matt finally meets with all the cousins for the big sale. We spend most of our time with Matt and his kids, letting their interpersonal dynamics develop and shift as they learn things about Elizabeth they never knew. 

One of the most glaring things about the film is the lack of actual native Hawaiian people as prominent characters. There’s an appearance by a Hawaiian actress early in the movie as the mother of a child that Scottie has bullied, but that’s about it. This isn’t something new for Hollywood; it has a pretty solid track record of boxing out the native people when it wants to exploit their beautiful island home. It wouldn’t be that bad if a significant plot point didn’t focus on a family that is clearly white planning to sell “their” land to real estate developers. The movie keeps harping on the fact that if you go back in the family tree far enough, there are native Hawaiian people, but that’s not reflected in the present-day family. 

The biggest problem, which continues into Payne’s work today, is that he has decided to make almost every supporting character so obnoxious & unlikable. This goes from Matt’s daughters to his cousins to Sid, the guy friend Alex brings along for “moral support.” What makes them unlikable is that the dialogue they are given either shows them as unpleasant or comes across as cliche-ridden tv drama crap. While rewatching The Descendants for this review, I was utterly bored with these characters and this story. There’s an interesting story among the fragments, but the way Payne tells it and the quality of dialogue in the script undermine any chance of it being good. 

Nothing about how Matt and his daughters interact feels like it comes from an honest place. It’s a movie where neglectful parenting is played as a punchline. Matt is out of his depth, and his kids are meant to be wild, much like their mother. Isn’t it funny how lost he is? Not really. I mean, it could be funny, but not the way this particular film plays it out. Matt’s father-in-law resorts to physical assault when the Sid kid annoys him too much, and we’re supposed to chuckle and say, “Oh, old people, using violence to correct behavior!” It doesn’t help that the actors playing Matt’s daughters are not good, so their stiffness and delivery of already poor dialogue made me wholly disconnected from the movie. I didn’t care what happened to him or his family. Unlike Payne’s previous films, which showcased some rich, interesting characters, the Descendants felt like an obligation to get through.

If you are a lover of Alexander Payne’s movies, you’re probably not going to like the following two reviews in this series either because it’s not going to get better for him. The flaws here begin to repeat themselves, albeit in different tones and shapes, but it’s still the same weaknesses rearing their heads. Are Payne’s best days of filmmaking long gone? I don’t know, but this era doesn’t make me clamor for more.

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