A kinder, gentler, less interesting Alexander Payne.
The darkly comic director of Election, About Schmidt and Sideways reveals a soft spot with The Descendants, about a lawyer in Hawaii trying to care for his two wayward daughters after a boating accident leaves his wife hospitalized. On the surface Payne seems ready to once again wring caustic laughs and bitter truths from his usual subjects – death, loneliness, failure, infidelity. Instead, we get the kind, affecting story of a decent man behaving decently, even when faced with the most crushing of circumstances.
George Clooney is that man, Matt King. We learn via voiceover that Matt has been something of an absent figure in his household, burying himself in work while his wife indulges in water sports, his teen daughter in boys and drugs and his younger daughter in the brave new world of swearing. Shaken to self-awareness in the wake of his wife’s accident, he sees this as a turning point for himself and his family. Yet just because he has a new attitude doesn’t mean things won’t get worse.
We’re used to seeing Payne characters being dumped upon by life, often as a result of their own misguided actions. In their childish responses (think of Thomas Haden Church in Sideways, crumpled beneath a bed sheet after frantically fleeing the scene of his adulterous crime), these characters turn his films into bitterly amusing explorations of humanity’s pathetic side. At his best, Payne is like a spinning-plate act, with an absurd scenario twirling there, an uncomfortable element whirling here, a gag wobbling at the center and a subtle sense of empathy holding the whole thing together.
That dexterity is missing from The Descendants. It’s not that we’re unsure of whether to laugh or not during many of its scenes (this discombobulation comes with the territory when watching a Payne film). It’s that the actors – and often the movie itself – seems unsure of how to play its scenes. I think of one moment in particular, in which Clooney’s Matt is witness to an increasingly hysterical speech by a betrayed wife (Judy Greer). The scene increases in intensity as if it were going for a big laugh, but then deflates and never offers that moment of comic release. It just … ends.
Part of the problem is Clooney’s performance. It’s as if he muted his comic instincts, when that’s what the movie needed. As his troubles mount, Matt doesn’t become furious or panicky or anything very interesting. He simply, quietly decides to take the most reasonable course of action. This makes him a nice guy, but something of a cipher. We don’t really get to know him; we only get to know what happens to him.
There’s something admirable in the way The Descendants tries to work its way toward a narrative of reconciliation and forgiveness, especially since there have been times when Payne’s work has crossed the line from being ruthlessly observant to just plain mean. But the overall fuzzy feeling offered here doesn’t feel natural in his hands. Payne specializes in the brokenness and foolishness inside of us. Niceness just isn’t his forte.