There is something going on in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants which makes me not care too much about its characters or plot. I cared about his earlier creations in Election and Sideways, but the family in this film feels stale and wooden. Just like his past films, the central character here, Matt King (George Clooney), is facing some tough problems, but this time they are not even of his design but are thrust upon him. Matt is even much more likeable than the Broderick in Election or Giamatti in Sideways, but that does not make him any more interesting to watch.
Matt is a lawyer on Oahu and is very well off. He is the sole decision-maker in a trust set up by his ancestors, Hawaiian royalty, in a large and undeveloped tract of land which hotel magnates and golf course developers are just aching to pay him a very large amount of money to take off of his hands. The majority of the other trustees are eager to sell as well, but Matt is holding all of the cards on the deal. The land issue is more background though because Matt’s wife Elizabeth is in a coma. She hit her head while in a boat race and the doctors do not know if she will wake up or not.
This leaves Matt, self-described in a monologue as the ‘back-up parent’, to deal with his two daughters. Since problems rarely come along one at a time, Matt also finds out at this point that Elizabeth was cheating on him with a local real estate tycoon, Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). With his wife in a coma and an extremely significant land deal on the horizon, Matt makes the most obvious choice any Alexander Payne character would choose, he takes off to Kauai with his daughters and an imbecile surfer dude, Sid (Nick Krause), to spy on Brian Speer and possibly confront him.
This road-trip, similar in respect to the trip to the vineyards in Sideways, lumps together an odd assortment of characters and then sits back to watch them as they place far too much emphasis on trivial events which are manifested into needless drama. Sideways was quirky, meandering in a pleasant way, and intellectual. The Descendants is more on par with Election; you do not particularly like the protagonists and instead of quirky, it feels more like plodding.
However, just like Sideways, The Descendants has a definite sense of place. Present day Hawaii comes across as stifling not only in the city, but also on the beach while you are attempting to spy on the guy who made you a cuckold. Perhaps it is island fever impacting the actions of Matt and infecting the musty moods of the rest of the cast.
The script does not rise to the level it set up for itself. Clooney and his elder daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) are angry and on a quest, but the writing is flat and the pacing is off. There are one-dimensional and tiring extended breaks between plot points which may have achieved a deeper emotional impact if they tried a bit harder or if the daughters were not so snotty. They are crass and relentlessly bitter to the point of distraction. Matt has the most right to be angry and spiteful, but thankfully he does not hang it blatantly around his neck and choose to be a one note character ala Alex.
I do not know why most of the rest of the film going public is raving about The Descendants. Alexander Payne has been great in the past, but he has misfired here. I have no doubt he will back with another enjoyable movie in the future, but I recommend you sit this one out or if you have not seen it, go back and enjoy Sideways. Leave The Descendants where they are, stewing in Hawaii.