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TIFF11: "The Descendants" Is about as Interesting and Compelling as a Light Hawaiian Breeze

By Daniel Walber | Spout September 9, 2011 at 2:12AM

Apparently “The Descendants” is going to win Best Picture at the 84th Academy Awards. I guess that means we should take it seriously. Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t exactly seem as if Alexander Payne is giving his audiences the same courtesy. This film is so deeply uninteresting and impressively lazy that it almost calls into question the director’s very relationship with the audience. Does he really think we can be moved by such an autopilot plot and uninspired style? The entire experience is maddening.
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Apparently “The Descendants” is going to win Best Picture at the 84th Academy Awards. I guess that means we should take it seriously. Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t exactly seem as if Alexander Payne is giving his audiences the same courtesy. This film is so deeply uninteresting and impressively lazy that it almost calls into question the director’s very relationship with the audience. Does he really think we can be moved by such an autopilot plot and uninspired style? The entire experience is maddening.

Payne lays it on thick, beginning with the hyper-consciously charming voiceover that sets things off. Matt (George Clooney) is conveniently one of the richest men in Hawaii, descended from royalty (his last name is King, in case you didn’t get that the first time). His family has one last massive chunk of land, which they’re about to sell in order to make even more money. Matt has, coincidentally, complete power over the decision. He's told his spoiled cousins that he'll go with whatever the majority of the clan decides, though if he wanted he could overrule them and keep the land in the trust, preserving this still pristine property. Guess what he eventually decides. Unsurprisingly, it leads to the sort of embarrassingly fake suspense usually confined to the romantic comedy.

As for his more immediate family, his wife Elizabeth has just fallen into a coma after a terrible accident on the water. Matt needs to step up and raise his two daughters, despite having always been the “back-up parent, the understudy.” Yet living the cliché of the absent father’s return to glory isn’t enough for Payne, and our hero must also now and again throw down some contrived words of wisdom. These impromptu proverbs include such gems as “my family is like an archipelago” and “what is it about the women in my life that they want to destroy themselves?” “The Descendants” takes an array of middle-aged dad tropes that we’ve seen countless times and tries to make them seem new again just by adding some leis and Hawaiian shirts.

To be fair, many of the above problems can probably be attributed to the novel of the same name upon which the movie is based. You can’t blame the filmmaker for the book, though it is at least his call to adapt the thing in the first place. Sadly, the problems don’t end there.

“The Descendents” is peppered with strange and whimsical characters that come in and out of the story, presumably for comic effect. They seem almost like cheap parodies of the real characters of Payne’s earlier career; the students in “Election” come to mind. There’s Reina, a friend of Matt’s 10-year-old daughter, who doesn’t eat carbs and invites boys over to watch porn. We meet Troy, the bleach blonde surfer dude who was indirectly responsible for Elizabeth’s accident and who puts his foot in his mouth more times in a single conversation than we really need. Yet no quirky bit character is as omnipresent and tired as the dazed surfer boy Sid, who is so blandly strung out that he likely would have seemed obsolete even back when Bill and Ted were having their adventures.

And then there’s Clooney. It’s as if Payne is so won over by the actor’s charm (as are we all) that he’s afraid to give him anything even potentially provocative. He’s so likable and beyond reproach in this movie that it’s almost impossible to find him even the least bit compelling. Matt doesn’t make a single bad decision for the entire duration of “The Descendants.” He talks a lot about being clueless around his daughters, yet he never once makes a substantial parenting mistake. His delivery of bad news to Elizabeth’s friends is flawless and he expertly handles everyone from his bitter father-in-law to the man with whom his wife was cheating. Even Matt’s rare moments of anger and less-than-attractive emotion are masked by physical comedy, either through silly running or jumping around large bushes. This character may have an arc on the page but by the time he’s reached the screen Matt is little more than a bland reproduction of the George Clooney charm machine.

I doubt Payne is so cynical as to completely avoid any genuine provocative dramatic tension just to see if he could pull at heart-strings without much actual effort. Almost everyone involved with this film can do better, and has done better. That includes Shailene Woodley, who while quite good in the film, somehow managed to find a grown-up feature debut that makes her work on “Secret Life of the American Teenager” seem downright adult in comparison.

At the very beginning of the film, Matt opens his voice-over by complaining about Hawaii. All of his friends on the mainland tell him they’re jealous, that his life must be nothing but palm trees, beautiful weather and the beach. Then Payne cuts to a mundane shot of horrible city traffic, as his narrator tells us that Hawaii can suck just as much as the rest of the country. Unfortunately, that turns out to be more ironic self-fulfilling prophecy than astute observation. “The Descendants” is little more than a brief vacation, maybe with a little bit of unpleasant rain now and again but on the whole offering little more than bland schlock. Maybe Payne just decided to soften things up to get that Best Picture statue Steve Pond has already sent his way.

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