(Alexander Payne, 2011)
Topped by George Clooney, self-consciously pushing himself in a dry, worthy piece of Oscarbait work, this middlebrow comedy-drama (more drama than comedy) is the worst thing Alexander Payne has done. Overlong, a little dull, ploddingly paced and too dependent on Clooney's Voiceover for both exposition and thematic content, it is however winning in parts, mainly due to a fine cast.
Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian real estate attorney who discovers that his wife has been cheating on him only when he has to spread the news that her recent coma (following a boating accident) will end when they pull the plug on her life support machines. He juggles this strain with two troubled young daughters while also preparing to decide exactly what to do with thousands of acres of land which has belonged to his family for generations.
Payne is a gifted cinematic storyteller - his camera unobtrusive, his scripts witty, his work with actors frequently superb - but his sensibility can be a problem. There is a pronounced misanthropic strain in his work, rendering many characters as mean little caricatures, and in The Descendants, that is mixed with an earnestness which is less characteristic.
This is a film concerned with big subjects: death, family, marriage, legacy. But, though it addresses those themes directly, it is often groaningly obvious about doing so. Clooney's line (in voiceover, of course) about families resembling archipelagos is particularly memorable for these wrong reasons. Likewise, Payne's attempts to mix tragedy and comedy generally don't work, being neither funny nor moving.
The use of Hawaii - the real Hawaii, where normal (well, sorta) people actually live - as a backdrop is probably the most distinctive aspect of the film, and there are a few outstanding performances. Robert Forster transforms a crudely written grumpy old man role into a sharp, complex take on grief, while the two newcomers playing Clooney's daughters are both fine.
Clooney is a bit more problematic. Still taking parts where he can show his range this far into his leading man career, he makes all the right faces here but is still somehow a little unconvincing. You feel he never inhabits his roles. His approach is much more old-fashioned, which can appear stagey and thin when surrounded by the casual attempted authenticity of so much modern drama. His comedic run to the house of friends is a lowlight, reminiscent of the kind of thing he has done for the Coens, without their bite or originality. And when the scene finally comes when he breaks down, it is so predictable and tame it is as if Payne is deliberately trying to steal his leading man's thunder. Clooney summons tears and gets the tone right, but the writing is hideous; affected, unconvincing, a little turgid. Like the film in general.