Review: The Descendants (2011)

Directed by: Alexander Payne
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller

Following a peculiar seven-year absence, Alexander Payne has burst back onto the scene with his latest and much-anticipated The Descendants. Given a nearly impeccable, virtually spotless track record in casually addressing the bleaker, emotionally driven aspects of the human condition while deftly blending in his now trademark wit, to expect nothing but the best from him is inevitable. In a rather surprising turn of events, Payne has instead less-than-masterfully provided us with a platter stacked high with mediocrity, leaving me in much dismay as I still scratch my head trying to figure out why The Descendants remains so clumsy in its sensibilities, continually forcing you to sympathize with the central characters in a sometimes tasteless, barely effective fashion.

Startling myself as I read back that introductory paragraph, I almost feel ashamed to express the many gripes I had with this particular 2011 hopeful. Reluctance aside, it’s hard to believe that any filmgoer enjoys being told what to feel by the central protagonist. While literal instances of this aren’t entirely present, this is the vibe we get from Clooney’s narration as the opening sequences unsubtly lay the groundwork for what’s to come within the next two hours. Is this nothing more than blatant adherence to the source material? Possibly, yet the film seems to falter in several other regards that prohibit it from being all it could’ve been.

Chronic hand-holding ensues as Clooney’s absentee father/husband stereotype bumbles through several cliched self-discoveries, most of which are brought about by several other factual rumblings dealing with the lesser-known niches of his estranged (comatose) wife’s life. During this time, we come to recognize Mr. King as a generally kindhearted individual, inadvertently yet mindlessly distancing himself from his daughters over the years so as to add another predictably resolvable issue to the script’s big fat sappy “To Do” list. For what it’s worth, the emotions exhibited during certain scenes feel authentic to the point where we can at least garner a favorable opinion of all involved, so it’s easy enough to just sit back and enjoy the ride thanks to this and Payne and the gang’s implementation of the film’s purposefully inappropriate and effective sense of humor.

Despite everything existing on a base level, leaving complexity behind in favor of spoon-feeding us each and every mood or catharsis, the film’s performances are generally where The Descendants manages to get its act together. Mundane as the proceedings often are, it’s hard to dislike Clooney’s Matt King even as one begins to realize that his wife’s coma was the only thing helping rekindle his sense of responsibility as a family man. He doesn’t always make the best decisions along the bumpy road to recovery and eventual redemption in his eyes and those of his daughters, yet you can’t deny Clooney’s commitment to illustrating this character’s initially disagreeable nature. Shailene Woodley has also been generating a lot of buzz for her “breakthrough” performance, and rightfully so, but truth be told, if you’ve seen one portrayal of a foul-mouthed rebellious teen you’ve probably seen ’em all.

In the end, The Descendants is yet another prime example of how high expectations can sometimes lead to monumental disappointments. This in mind, Alexander Payne’s latest isn’t necessarily the year’s worst – it’s far from it, believe me – only its glaring inability to surpass convention as a typically sappy dysfunctional family drama keeps it from being something more. It has a certain charm about it that helps make the proceedings a bit more enjoyable if only on a base level, and Clooney’s dedication to flawlessly portraying the flawed individual at the film’s core is something to behold as Payne remains steadfast in his intentions with the script and source material. While equally funny and heartfelt like the auteur’s earlier efforts certainly are, The Descendants just can’t fit the bill as anything but ordinary.

Rating: 5/10


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