The other George Clooney film at this year’s London Film Festival is Alexander Payne’s fifth feature film The Descendants. It has been seven years since his last feature film Sideways and so there was a lot of anticipation for this. Clooney plays Matt King a wealthy yet frugal lawyer living in Hawaii with his adrenaline seeking wife Elizabeth and their 10 year old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller). Their other daughter, 17 year old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), has been shipped off to boarding school in order to try and control her wayward tendencies. Matt is a self-confessed backseat father but when his wife is involved in a coma inducing boating accident he is forced to become more involved with his children and attempts to reconnect with them along with finding out who his wife really was. Matt’s ancestors owned a large plot of land in Hawaii and now the trustees, one of them being Matt, must decide whether to sell the land or not. Suddenly his life completely changes, he is faced with decisions that have huge consequences and he must try and quickly develop a relationship with his two daughters in case the worst happens and his wife doesn’t wake up from the coma.
While this sounds rather serious there are plenty of laughs and comedic relief throughout the film, perhaps the funniest moment being Clooney’s hilarious jog and also a scene where King spies on a beach house, using slapstick comedy to great effect. Clooney really is the driving force of this film and it is refreshing to see him play an ordinary family man rather than a charming character, it also confirms him as a great physical comedian as the Coens chose to show also. What is also refreshing about this film is the fact it completely de-romanticises Hawaii, a montage at the beginning of the film depicting street life in Honolulu, something we do not associate with Hawaii in the movies and also the weather is often rather dull and grey, subverting our notion of paradise. What the main character goes through is also not what happens in paradise and the location plays a huge part in the story, Hawaii becoming a character in itself.
As Matt struggles to come to terms with the fate of his wife, he finds out a few home truths and decides to investigate matters himself, his daughters going along for the ride. The actresses who play the two daughters are great, particularly Miller for whom this is her first film. She brilliantly shows a young girl slowly beginning to comprehend the imminent death of her mother, not an easy task for any actress. There are some smaller roles covered by some brilliant actors too, Judy Greer is particularly great as the wife of a real estate guy that is set to gain from the sale of the Hawaiian land, her scene with Matt in the hospital is full of mixed emotions.
Much as this film has many positives there are quite a few negatives as well. Payne explores the fine line between comedy and tragedy but for me most of the comedy I did not find particularly funny, especially the scenes with Alexandra’s stoner surfer dude boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) which I found irritating. A lot of the comedic elements felt rather forced and overshadowed the tragedy. However I did love the comedy moments with Clooney. As for the tragedy it wasn’t as moving or emotional as it could have been and the film emotionally for me felt like it plateaued.
The Descendants is an alright film, Clooney is brilliant as always and the supporting cast do a great job but I never felt truly invested and did not feel emotionally attached which for a film that relies on emotion is quite a big problem. There are some great scenes and some noteworthy moments but the film was not as good as it could or should have been. A great Clooney performance but it felt like it needed more.
Director: Alexander Payne
Writers: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Judy Greer
Runtime: 117 mins