Descending on The Descendants

OK, I admit it. I’m the one. I’m the guy who doesn’t like The Descendants. Doesn’t like it enough, I should say. Doesn’t think it’s the best movie to come along since Citizen Kane. Sorry. I wanted to like it. I’m a fan of Alexander Payne, the director. I liked About Schmidt a lot, Sideways, too, though less.

The title comes from the back-story, which is a problem in and of itself. George Clooney plays Matt King, a real estate lawyer who runs the family trust that owns 25,000 pristine acres in Hawaii. We’re led to believe that the descendants vie with each other over what should be done with the property, most of them wanting Clooney’s character to approve the sale of the land. But in fact, these characters and this conflict are mere background. Even at the big picnic meeting where all will be decided, they mostly just stand around drinking beer and eating hotdogs. And Payne cuts away before we see any real reaction to the decision Clooney makes. Even the director’s not that interested in the back-story.

Beau Bridges does a great job as the aging hippie/surfer cousin whose closest to Clooney’s character, but he doesn’t have enough of an effect on Clooney or on the plot to matter. He does have a lovely moment, though, when he threatens Clooney in the friendliest way imaginable.

At one point, Clooney’s character reassures his family that “This is all going to be over in a couple of days.” He needn’t have bothered. None of them is all that worried about what will happen. If the land is sold and a resort is built on it, the family will no longer have a 25,000-acre campground.

The land is beautiful but it doesn’t have the importance of the ever-promised, never-realized trip to the lighthouse in Virginia Woolf’s novel. And it should.

In fact, if the whole back-story were removed, it would lift out as cleanly as the skeleton from a cooked trout, and no harm would come to the movie. In fact, it would focus the movie on its true heart. Nevertheless, the movie is named for this unnecessary dimension of the story.

At the true heart of the movie is one man’s dying wife and what he learns about—and how he deals with—her secret life. Payne is especially good at capturing that uneasy balance between comedy and tragedy, and he’s at his best here. We don’t know whether to chuckle at Clooney’s ineptitude as a father and husband or to roll our eyes in recognition of ourselves. In the end, the proper response is—both.

The actors are strong, especially Shailene Woodley, who plays Clooney’s disaffected daughter with the kind of reckless bravado that only the deeply wounded can pull off. Nick Krause, with his crooked smile and slacker’s drawl, is good as her boyfriend. And Robert Forster has a good turn as the cranky grandfather who blames his son-in-law for his daughter’s coma.

Near the beginning of the movie, Clooney’s character says, “I’m ready to change, ready to be a real husband, a real father.” It’s one of those be-careful-what-you-wish-for moments. Change hits him like a two-by-four to the face. He’s a man who’s tugged in different directions, not so much by the relatives who want to sell the family land, but by his conflicting feelings for his dying wife.

Matt King is Clooney’s best performance. Here he drops the little quiver of self-satisfaction that’s part of most of the characters he plays. Instead, he’s a little slack-jawed, a little out-of-it. He’s a man who has never fully inhabited his own emotions. So when the worst happens—and then something even worse than that—he has no idea what to feel or how to react. It’s a tough part to play, and Clooney makes a worthy attempt. But you never quite believe a man with his good looks and intensity could be so naïve, so lost.

For the record, I have the same problem with Jack Nicholson‘s performance in About Schmidt. You never for a moment believe that an actor as edgy as Nicholson can be as simple-minded as his character. Acting is more than impersonation.

For instance, during the scene where Clooney’s character speaks his heart to his comatose wife, I couldn’t help remembering similar scenes from movies as different as Magnolia and Last Tango in Paris—deathbed monologues that take the top of your head off. Clooney’s monologue barely ruffles your hair.

You go to an Alexander Payne movie partly for the good writing. And there are some very funny and poignant lines throughout: “I’m the backup parent, the understudy,” “In Hawaii, some of the most powerful people look like bums and stuntmen.”

And there are others that aren’t as quotable but nicely honor the mystery and complexity of life. When his wife’s lover defends their affair by saying, “It just happened,” Clooney rejects this easy defense with “Nothing just happens.” And the man counters with “Everything just happens.” Who’s right? One of the best things about the movie is that it gives us no easy answers or easy targets.

I like The Descendants, but it’s a movie with problems. Forgive me if I don’t join the conga line of unadulterated praise.