Until this very moment, Alexander Payne has made a rather successful career with his ability to seamlessly meld pain with biting black humor. His Citizen Ruth (1996) brazenly tackles the Pro-Life movement and its foes. Election (1999) wickedly chronicles the disasters raging high-school hormones wrought on both self-centered teens and their instructors. About Schmidt takes its aging eponymous widower (Jack Nicholson) on a caustic trip to self-discovery while attending his daughter's wedding. And Sideways (2004), an ode to oenophiles in search of love, won him an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
The Descendants, the closing-night attraction at the New York Film Festival, seems to be his first misstep, although the result is far from unbearable thanks to a talented cast that rises above a highly disjointed screenplay.
The opening shot is of Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie), a beautiful blonde hurtling across a waterway with the gales of excitement blowing across her face. The locale is Hawaii. Quick cut. A native tune. Then after the film title and cast credits roll across the screen, Ms. King is met again, comatose in a hospital bed, a condition from which she is very unlikely to recover, a victim of a boating accident.
Sitting beside her is her spouse, lawyer Matt (George Clooney), who besides having a disabled wife suddenly on his hands, has to decide to whom he should sell thousands of acres of virgin tropical beach. The land, worth hundreds of millions, is in a family trust he controls, and Matt must deal with kin who want to cash in, plus eco-unfriendly developers who are skirmishing to gain control of the property.
Who wouldn't want paradise? "Paradise can go fuck itself," Matt proclaims in a very lengthy narration. For protracted minutes on end in a deadpan voice, Matt notes how the rest of the world doesn't see Hawaii as it really is. The poverty. The seedy neighborhoods. "Do they think our cancer is less fatal?"
Heading home, Matt must now confront raising his daughters -- Scottie (Amara Miller), a feisty ten-year-old, and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), a hard-hitting, hard-drinking 17-year-old -- while his wife is out of commission. And what if Elizabeth dies? He quickly realizes he's out of his element. Always too involved in his work, he's been sort of an absentee dad and spouse. Can any man recapture the "paradise" that he imagines his family life once was? Not if it never existed.
Apparently, Matt's fantasies about his nearest and dearest are as accurate as a tourist's of Hawaii. His wife was cheating on him, Scottie is tormenting fellow students who've reached puberty early with nasty emails, and Alexandra has a boyfriend, Sid (Nick Krause), who acts as if he's been hit on the head with one-too-many surfboards.
The setup is fine, but there are too many times when you are not sure whether to laugh or be doleful. For example, when Matt's mother-in-law, who's suffering from Alzheimer's, thinks she'll be seeing Queen Elizabeth instead of her daughter in the hospital, Sid wonders aloud, with a "Hey, man!" delivery, if she's for real. An angered Gramps (a terrific Robert Forster) punches him in the eye. This a Judd Apatow moment that is carried over to the following scene where a blissful Sid asks with admiration, "I mean, how often do old people just haul off and cold-cock you in the face?"
In a film where a father convincingly wonders, "What makes the women in my life want to destroy themselves?" this is a high crap moment.
This is an adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings's much-praised novel; there are numerous lines of Hemmings's worked directly into The Descendants' screenplay, but not always effectively (e.g. a family is "like an archipelago"). Is it because Payne lacks a certain grace here in his direction? Or is it the inability of he and his co-screenwriters, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, to successfully construct a screenplay that wants to gallop from sorrow to rage to high shenanigans and back? Or is editor Kevin Tent at fault for the lack of cohesiveness of tone?
Possibly, Hemmings' prose is too cinematic to be screened. Take this extract:
"I try to think of the last time [Scottie] was completely in my care and what we did together. I think it was when she was around one, one and a half. Joanie had to fly to Maui for a shoot and couldn’t find a babysitter, and her parents couldn’t do it, for some reason. I was in the middle of a trial and stayed home but absolutely had to get some work done, so I put Scottie in the bathtub with a bar of soap. I watched to see what happened. She splashed and tried to drink the bathwater, and then she found the soap and reached to grab it. It eluded her grasp and she tried again, a look of wonder on her small face, and I slipped out into the hall, where I had set up a workstation and a baby monitor. I could hear her laughing, so I knew she wasn’t drowning. I wonder if this would still work: putting her in a tub with a slippery bar of Irish Spring."
They say it's easier to make a great film out of a bad novel than a good one. Maybe they, whomever they are, are right. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "Gay Identity in Literature" and "The Arts in New York City" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, The New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton).