Alexander Payne's long-awaited return is a classic case of absence making the heart grow fonder. Not that the director's previous work has lost or gained luster with time, simply that expectations have somehow made people see in The Descendants an excellence it clearly hasn't achieved, solid and good as the film is. There isn't anything intrinsically wrong with its smart, affecting study of family issues set against the unlikely backdrop of paradisiacal Hawaii, and it's clearly of a piece with Mr. Payne's breakthrough films About Schmidt and Sideways - both of them about overwhelmed, clueless people going through life crises. There is even a superbly realised irony in casting George Clooney, possibly the closest modern Hollywood has got to a classic film star in the 1940s/1950s mold, in the role of an overwhelmed, clueless lawyer going through a mid-life crisis: dealing with his wife's possibly terminal coma and the surprise discovery that she was having an affair, with his teenage daughters' feelings about the situation, and with a family land decision affecting all of his close and distant relatives.

     Mr. Clooney, a smarter actor than most are willing to credit him as, acquits himself more than honorably and dims his star wattage accordingly to work the way he has always preferred, as a consummate ensemble player. But that only highlights just how much The Descendants is the least edgy and least challenging of the director's films. The sense of quiet desperation that always suffused Mr. Payne's quietly naturalistic, almost clinical studies of the modern American male is mostly absent, replaced with a sort of wearied acceptance, a sense that nothing can be done other than come to terms with what is, always was and forever shall be. With the director's sly satirical edge dulled, the film's generally well-observed look at family dynamics is blunted, and this exceedingly well-behaved melodrama ends up lacking the subterranean energy that made Mr. Payne stand out among the "Indiewood" crowd.

     Again, there is nothing wrong with The Descendants - everything is in its right place, and maybe there's the rub.

George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard.
     Director, Alexander Payne; screenplay, Mr. Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants; cinematography, Phedon Papamichael (colour by Fotokem, prints by Deluxe, Panavision widescreen); production designer, Jane Ann Stewart; costume designer, Wendy Chuck; editor, Kevin Tent; producers, Jim Burke, Mr. Payne, Jim Taylor (Fox Searchlight Pictures, Ad Hominem Enterprises, in association with Dune Entertainment, Little Blair Productions, Ingenious Entertainment), USA, 2011, 115 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Amoreiras 2 (Lisbon), January 13th 2011.



Popular Posts