'The Descendants' Finds Glumness in Paradise

Another Alexander Payne movie, another befuddled male protagonist.

In The Descendants, George Clooney plays the dazed patriarch of a dysfunctional Hawaiian family, contending simultaneously with a comatose wife, difficult young daughters, and a pending decision on the sale of a big chunk of land. The plot details are different from those of About Schmidt and Sideways, Payne's two previous films, but the air of diffident glumness is familiar. Like the retired actuary played by Jack Nicholson in Schmidt, and the frustrated wine snob given memorable life by Paul Giamatti in Sideways, Clooney's Matt King is a man stuck in reaction mode. He is cautious to the point of passivity, working long hours at his law firm and carefully guarding a sizable family fortune against profligacy—specifically, his wife's.

But as the film starts, his wife (Patricia Hastie) is in critical care after a power-boat accident. (Unlike Matt, she was a free-spirited daredevil.) His daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley), are traumatized and acting out in pre-adolescent and teenage ways. And his many cousins are anxious to know how he intends to dispose of the gorgeous island property handed down to all of them through their lineage to a 19th-century Hawaiian queen. Matt is the sole trustee of the land, but money from a sale would be spread through the family, so the lobbying is intense.

All of this information is conveyed in the opening minutes via a deadening Clooney voiceover. The inertness of the narration is presumably supposed to show the character's confused and detached mindstate, but it comes across as clumsy and unconvincing, a lazy way to tell us a lot of things that Payne didn't have the imagination or patience to show. The voiceover disappears after a while, but Clooney's character never comes to life beyond the vague stipulations of those first few minutes: He's been too busy at work to pay enough attention to his wife and kids, he's a basically decent guy with the good fortune to have a good fortune, and he looks exactly like George Clooney in a Hawaiian shirt.

The inattentive, middle-aged husband and father is a trite convention, and so it goes with most of the other characters in the film: the prematurely foul-mouthed kid; the embittered father-in-law who has always thought Matt wasn't good enough for his daughter. Only Woodley, as the older daughter, brings consistent vitality to her role, flickering through emotions and contradictory impulses that give some sense of the complexity of her family's situation. Unfortunately, she is paired for most of the movie with a lunkheaded childhood friend named Sid (Nick Krause), a surfer-boy stereotype who provides crude comic relief that mostly lands flat.

The core of the movie comes via Matt's discovery of some unpleasant secrets about his wife. As he pursues those, seeking some kind of resolution, The Descendants periodically finds its footing. There are scenes of confrontation with his wife's friends and others that tip over into poignancy and emotional candor. But the movie never stays there long. The script is too quick to go for easy one-liners, many of which stray into sitcom territory.

Alexander Payne can be a sharp writer. His first two films, Citizen Ruth and Election, were satires with jagged edges. But since then, he has produced middlebrow tragicomedies that strain for depths they rarely reach. As the title suggests, The Descendants wants to be a study in family dynamics: what is handed down to us, what we choose to keep, what we struggle to discard. But its insights and characterizations are too superficial to resonate.

Part of the problem this time is Clooney. He is always most fun when his natural, slippery charm is given free rein. That's why my favorite Clooney role is still Jack Foley, the compulsive bank robber in 1998's Out of Sight. Even as the (eventual) good guy in Michael Clayton, he starts out as a snaky corporate lawyer with a gambling problem. But there's nothing slippery about Matt King. There's nothing even interesting about him. The role visibly burdens Clooney, he sags and sighs and furrows his brow, but it's like seeing a hot air balloon tethered close to the ground. You know this thing can soar, but instead it just sits there.

The film does make good use of its setting. It translates Hawaii into a landscape of humdrum subdivisions and commercial strips, nestled into a breathtaking backdrop of green mountains and blue waters. Its suggestion of the distance between the state's islands as a metaphor for the distance between its characters could be effective, if only it were willing to leave it at a suggestion. Instead, we get Clooney musing that his family "is like an archipelago," and then explaining exactly how his family is like an archipelago.

Payne adapted the script from the 2007 novel of the same name, which The New York Times praised for its "pared-down lyricism." It is not hard in the film to discern the outlines of a real story about real characters, but outlines are all they remain. The movie feels less like a reimagining than a Cliffs Notes study guide.