Alexander Payne’s first film since SIDEWAYS has finally arrived in UK cinemas, with a list of awards nominations as long as my arm. THE DESCENDANTS is a decent and enjoyable film, but it lacks the more caustic nature of Payne’s previous work and isn’t compelling enough to fully draw you in, despite Clooney’s best efforts.
THE DESCENDANTS follows Matt King, a lawyer who is the sole trustee of a large portion of undeveloped Hawaiian land. However, life becomes difficult after his wife slips into a coma following a boating accident; and it soon transpires she was having an affair with a married real estate agent. Matt must deal with the pressures of an impending big-money deal for the land and caring for his daughters in the wake of being thrust into the role of sole, cuckolded parent.
Although there are many challenges facing Matt, they seem all too easily dealt with or forgotten about in a meandering script. The issues that appear to confront him regarding his daughters either fade into the background swiftly or disappear entirely. The subplot regarding the sale of the land owned by the many cousins also follows a reasonably unsurprising route. There are moments that buck this trend, but THE DESCENDANTS also fails to commit fully enough to either its dramatic or comedic elements in order to make it a truly involving piece of work.
THE DESCENDANTS is a decent and enjoyable film, but […] isn’t compelling enough to fully draw you in, despite Clooney’s best efforts
This isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of things to like about THE DESCENDANTS. The portrayal of Hawaii itself is almost the most interesting aspect of the film, with the 50th state presented in a more unassuming manner than the familiar grass-skirts-and-virgin-beaches version (although you can decide for yourself whether this is damning with faint praise). George Clooney’s performance is worthy of some of the plaudits he has been receiving, delivering a restrained performance that brings sympathy and warmth to a character that, despite his trying situation, may be hard to empathise with totally. Matt King is a successful multi-millionaire presented as having emotionally neglected his family up to this point. Some of the supporting performances also deliver well; Robert Forster puts in an enjoyably abrasive performance as Clooney’s father-in-law and Judy Greer shows great range in a small role as Julie Speer, the other victim of the central infidelity.
However, there is little of particular interest going on both narratively or visually. The film quickly falls upon a slightly odd grief-cum-detective story as the adulterous Brian Speer is tracked down by Clooney and his older daughter. The performances and mood prevent THE DESCENDANTS from being a total disapointment but, nevertheless, it hints at complexity and depth without ever seeming to truly achieve it.
THE DESCENDANTS is a hard film to criticise, as it is largely an enjoyable and pleasant film – but nothing more. In the end, however, compared to Payne’s previous work that is perhaps the most damning criticism that could be leveled at it.