Trouble in Paradise: The Descendants

In Alexander Payne’s comfy new indie, George Clooney plays Matt King, a Honolulu-based lawyer and the sole trustee of a large parcel of prime real estate (some 25,000 acres) on the island of Kauai that his family has owned since the 1860s. He is a direct descendant of King Kamehameha, and, with his extended network of cousins—among them, Hugh (Beau Bridges)—Matt must decide what to do with the land, which is valued at hundreds of millions of dollars: sell it to investors and see it be developed into condos and golf courses, or keep it for seven years (at which time the trust must, by law, be dissolved) and wait for a more suitable buyer to appear in the interim. All of the locals are watching the sale closely, and almost none of them want it to be handed over to ‘foreigners.’ They’d prefer the investment capital to come from (and stay in) Hawaii, rather than from a large Chicago-based conglomerate.

The land-sale, though, isn’t Matt’s number-one concern—that’d be his comatose wife Elizabeth, left in a vegetative state after a speedboating accident. She’s all but dead—or she will be, as soon as he and his two daughters, the precocious Scottie (10), and the apparently ‘rebellious Alexandra (or Alex; 17), pull the plug. Two of the film’s best scenes come early on, about twenty-five minutes into the story. After Matt has been told his wife won’t wake up, he relays this to Alex (the should-be-Oscar-nominated young actress Shailene Woodley) while she’s in the family’s leaf-filled swimming pool, with the added info that Elizabeth has a do-not-resuscitate clause in her will. (In response, she echoes Dustin Hoffman’s perplexed exasperation underwater in The Graduate.) Then, in a brilliantly performed speech, Alex delivers a shocking revelation: Matt’s wife had been having an affair. The film goes downhill from there, delving into the repercussions of Matt’s bad parenting accompanied by a parade of Hawaiian shirts and a soundtrack of twangy, carefree Hawaiian music that is as incessantly deployed and as annoying* as the film’s weather is muggy and damp.

More maddening and of more concern than those elements, though, is the film’s borderline-offensive gender politics: The Descendants—Payne’s fifth feature film since 1996, and his first in seven years—has an obtuse, outwardly ambivalent (if not quite disdainful) attitude towards most its female characters. Unlike Election, or the masterful About Schmidt, or even Sideways—which arguably all have at their core strong, powerful, even domineering women—Payne’s new film actively petitions for the audience to harbour a dislike (or, if it succeeds in its apparent mission, something more emphatic) toward Matt’s daughters, his wife, and even toward the wife of the man** with whom Elizabeth cheated on Matt. (She’s played by the always excellent Judy Greer.)

Alex doesn’t get much more character development than we glimpse at in those aforementioned scenes with Matt near the film’s outset, and while the other daughter, Scottie, is allowed a few scenes at her mother’s death-bed midway through the film in which to flourish, this is later negated when, as she’s being informed by a counsellor of her mother’s imminent death, Scottie isn’t given any dialogue: instead we hear yet another sombre ukulele quietly plinking away. Judy Greer’s scene at Elizabeth’s death-bed, which comes just before Clooney’s Oscar-goading big goodbye, is unpleasant: it’s a teary, hysterical rant full of misplaced guilt and errant emotions. (“I just have to forgive you, even though I should hate you!” she yells.)

For The Descendants—which, like much of his other work, has its origins in a novel—Payne ditched his regular co-writer Jim Taylor, and teamed up with bit-part actors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the latter of whom is additionally a one-time SNL writer. In Kaui Hart Hemmings’ book, the character of Alex is a former model and drug addict in the early stages of recovery. The film affords her not even as slender a description as that: Payne labels her ‘rebellious’ and expands on this only barely, by showing her drinking one night (ooh, naughty!) and having Matt explain that she goes to high school on a different Hawaiian island to where the family have their home. Her relationship with her boyfriend, Syd, was also disrupted in the transition to the screen: he’s recast simply as her friend—such a change becoming necessary because (apparently) Woodley and her co-star, Nick Krause, had no romantic chemistry. (In other words, he can’t act.) In a further missive from the sidelining-female-characters dept., Payne has Matt and Syd share a father-son like bonding moment—the one time in the film when Syd sounds like anything more than a dumb stoner-jock. (Matt’s haughty, irascible father-in-law also gets more screen time than he deserves.)

Reading the novel’s first chapter, it’s clear that Hemmings (who has a cameo in the film) gave Matt and his daughters a comparable level of exposure and visibility her narrative; Payne’s film, conversely, places Matt front-and-centre, and diminishes Alex and Scottie’s role in proceedings. (It also seems, from this extract, that Hemmings’ novel comments more than does the film adaptation on Matt and his family’s whiteness and the racial tensions that permanently simmer just below the surface—a fascinating secondary theme explored only fleetingly [and jokingly] in the film.) Aside from these glaring flaws in adaptation, Payne et al.’s script contains missed opportunities elsewhere: what could have been an expertly crafted, sensational dream sequence mid-way through the third act—even as it plainly apes Six Feet Under—turns out to be real life, and in service of nothing more than rudimentary plot advancement. Furthermore, the almost risible amount of aphoristic, expository voiceover—including the ‘woe-is-me’ line “What is it that makes the women in my life want to destroy themselves?” (which may or may not come from the source novel)—given to Matt at every turn quickly becomes not only exasperating to keep up with, but appears mostly unnecessary.

Although it looks lovely—Phedon Papamichael once again proves that his glorious cinematography (which here includes a small handful of sub-Malickian nature-shots and some wonderful vistas of the Hawaiian islands) can, ahem, ‘brighten up’ even the blandest of stories—there’s nothing particularly interesting or exciting about a story this uninspiring told in so relentlessly safe (and ultimately, to more than half its characters, disparaging) a manner. No wonder it’s near the top of the heap of Best Picture nominees.

The Descendants is in cinemas today.

*Though a lot of the songs are just shy of infuriating, especially those that are reprised often, Jeff Peterson’s slightly melancholy “Hawaiian Skies” sits nicely in the background in a second-act scene. Every other song—the soundtrack comprises no score, just an assortment original Hawaiian music—is bland and yawn-inducing.

**That man, as it happens, is a real estate mogul; he’s played by a surprisingly passable Matthew Lillard, who hasn’t appeared in anything noteworthy since Scream.