Seven years after winning an Oscar for his screenplay for "Sideways," Alexander Payne has finally returned, with yet another tale of a middle-aged man in crisis who takes to the road in an effort to set things right.
"The Descendants" stars George Clooney as Matt King, the sole trustee of 25,000 acres of virgin Hawaiian paradise, which his relatives are itching to sell. But he's got far bigger problems, as he's just learned that his wife, who's in a coma, had been having an affair. Desperate for help taking care of his younger daughter, Scottie, he brings home his older daughter, Alexandra, who has a history of acting out. There is no shortage of drama in the life of the King.
Payne gets off to a shaky start with a long bit of narrative exposition, and just when you think you're finally about to witness a drama being played out--as opposed to read to you--you're subjected to a positively wooden and inorganic monologue that's really just more narration posing as dialogue. Things get better, but the improvement isn't marked enough to grab you.
Unfortunately, Clooney simply isn’t convincing as a man back on his heels trying to get his bearings. Even in films where he's beset by trouble on all sides—think "Michael Clayton" or "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"—Clooney is inherently a fighter, a man who leans forward, not back. Payne has enjoyed great success with lead actors like Matthew Broderick in "Election" and Paul Giamatti in "Sideways," a pair of men who slide into world-weary and downtrodden with ease—but Clooney is a bad fit for Payne's gestalt.
And Payne fails to establish any connection between Clooney and his family's land, or Hawaii in general, until the eleventh hour. And even then, it's expressed mainly in narration (yes, more narration), as he discusses his family's 150-year history on the islands. But for the first 80 minutes, his Hawaiian shirt collection is the only indication of his affection for the place. Payne doesn’t seem to have much affinity for the place, either, as almost all of his characters outside of Matt's immediate family seem to be slow-witted, bordering on flat-out stupid.
Only Shailene Woodley as Alexandra distinguishes herself, brandishing the type of disdain that only a daughter can feel for her father. She's a snarling, resentful and sarcastic monster, whose main problem with her father is that he's too stupid to see he's being cuckolded.
It's clear why Payne and Clooney were drawn to "The Descendants" and its tale of family legacies and they ways in which they are handed down and often taken for granted. But Clooney is miscast, and Payne's arc and dialogue feel too uneven to be believable or engaging.
"The Descendants" opens in limited release on Nov. 16