The Descendants (Alexander Payne, 2011)

There’s a slightness to The Descendants that I was simply never able to grow accustom to. It starts off fine enough; the opening act is rich in narration that, while it’s not usually my thing, works astonishingly well as both a form of exposition and a mine for emotional resonance. But as the picture unfolds, and as the narrative conflict becomes apparent, The Descendants begins to buckle. It remains surprisingly stagnant for prolonged stretches, wherein the weight of the conflict and the weight of the narrative diminish. What the film does have going for it is its absolutely stellar sense of culture – taking place in Hawaii, the film uses the locale as both a beautiful visual backdrop and as a way to develop and strip away contradictions. The Descendants is a film that is very aware of its setting and attempts to deconstruct preconceived notions of what it means to be there.

What preoccupies the proceedings in The Descendants is Matt King’s (George Clooney) emotional balancing act in coping with his wife’s betrayal and death. Discovering that his comatose wife had cheated on him, Matt deals with the matter by trying to find the man who she had fallen in love with. Aided by his two daughters and their friend, Matt travels from island to island searching for the man; meanwhile, he is bestowed with the responsibility of being a trustee who has been burdened with the decision of selling off land that his ancestors had owned that is now worth millions.

Perhaps what I found most grating about The Descendants is its rather simplistic method of fleshing out characters. Outside of George Clooney and Shailene Woodley’s characters, everyone begins as a caricature of sorts. Robert Forester’s disgruntled father, Nick Krause’s oafish comic relief, Amara Miller’s rebelling child, etc. all start off as one-dimensional characters. And almost systematically, they are all given their moment to justify their existence in the film. It’s not so much a subtle transformation but rather a clear scene that allows one character to jump from one image to another. There’s a lack of organic growth here from the supporting cast, and it’s especially noticeable as the film reaches its stagnant stretches.

What makes the film work is the banter between George Clooney and Shailene Woodley; they have a chemistry together that makes an exchange between the two shifts from antagonism to love in a split-second. Their relationship makes the most effective use of Payne’s direction, in that his lax nature allows the two to bubble from a simmer to a boil as the stakes begin to get more serious. They have the sort of dysfunctional father-daughter dynamic that comes across as naturalistic and genuine. And while the two have plenty of moments together to reflect on their situation, it’s the sort of thing that just makes you crave for more. Like Sideways, The Descendants is effective in its closing act, offering emotional closure in a subtle, low-key way. But it’s a hike to make it there; The Descendants’ sluggish middle stretch and way with characters hinders for my appreciation for it as a whole.

Rating: 5/10