Directed by Alexander Payne
About halfway into The Descendants, the new family-dysfunction drama starring George Clooney, I found I was suffering from a case of cognitive dissonance more profound than the emotional vertigo that seized me during the 53 seconds when Rick Perry couldn’t remember the third agency he wanted to close. I knew The Descendants had received rapturous notices. Indeed, according to the Rotten Tomatoes website, 90 percent of its reviews have been favorable. A typical rave came from Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post, who called The Descendants a “tough, tender, observant, exquisitely nuanced portrait of mixed emotions at their most confounding and profound.”
That was not the movie I was watching. Hornaday and those others must have been watching a different movie with George Clooney called The Descendants. My Descendants was unconvincing, poorly acted, badly written, and entirely dependent for the conveyance of both story and mood on lugubrious voiceover narration delivered by Clooney in a monotone that made him sound as though he had been given Ambien before he went into the recording booth. Moreover, The Descendants was directed with the kind of anomie I associate with Christmas movies on the Hallmark Channel starring second leads from Saved By the Bell as divorced women who somehow morph into Santa.
The fact that The Descendants was directed and cowritten by Alexander Payne, whose previous films were the extraordinarily sharp satires Citizen Ruth and Election and the marvelous About Schmidt and Sideways, both added to my distress and helped me understand the irrational enthusiasm for the inert, uncertain, moribund thing I was watching.
Alexander Payne has not made a movie in seven years, and in that time the positive impression his first four pictures made on passionate movie-
goers has only deepened. Payne’s previous films blend great social precision with unexpectedly large themes about the condition of the country, and are chock-a-block with memorable performances: Reese Witherspoon’s diamond-hard climber in Election, Jack Nicholson’s heartbreaking schmo in About Schmidt, and the hapless duo of Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church in Sideways. Small-scale and profoundly ambitious at the same time, the Payne movies made most other American fare seem overblown, or overdone, or overcooked. Even more interesting was the fact that Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways are literary adaptations. Payne’s willingness to find inspiration in the published word rather than in contrived original screenplays suggested a combination of modesty and literacy shared by no other major writer-director of our time.
Payne’s earlier films built up an unusual amount of goodwill, and on paper, The Descendants certainly seemed like the perfect comeback vehicle for him. It, too, is based on a novel, the second book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, published to great acclaim in 2007. Like Sideways, which largely took place in and around the vineyards of Napa County, The Descendants has a lush and unusual setting: Hawaii. And it stars George Clooney, who seems to invoke swoons in people who view him as a mystical combination of Clark Gable and Barack Obama: manly, charming, aloof, mysterious, and liberal.
What could there be not to like—especially with a touching storyline about a man whose wife lies in a coma and who must guide his two teenage daughters through the eventuality of their mother’s death? Add to that a plot involving Clooney’s character having to make a decision about whether to allow the 25,000 acres of pristine Hawaii land to be despoiled by hotels and golf courses (gee, I wonder where he’ll come down on that?) and the movie sells itself.
But the thing is, it’s bad. It’s genuinely bad. There wasn’t a moment in that first hour when I found it possible to suspend disbelief and accept Clooney as the slightly hapless “backup parent” to two girls, much less a middle-aged man married 20 years to a woman he loves and therefore grief-stricken and terrified about her coming demise. The girls themselves are supposed to be wild handfuls of trouble and oddity, but they seem perfectly nice except for a little cursing. Clooney acts less like a native of Honolulu and more like an actor who’s been hired to spend a week guest-starring on Hawaii Five-O as the manager of the Waikiki Hilton. Payne made a deliberate decision to deglamorize Hawaii—he wants to show it from the perspective of people who live there and take it for granted, and so it comes across as a sunnier version of the Omaha we see in About Schmidt—but that comes to seem almost as though we are being denied the pleasure of the scenery.
The second hour began and the movie improved somewhat, if only because it actually starts to have a plot at that point. The plot isn’t very involving, but it’s something to hang onto, and so perhaps that helped give the critics some reason to come out of the screening thinking they’d seen something worthy.
So baffled was I by this misfire that I went and read Hemmings’s novel, and it made things seem even sadder, because it’s a good and interesting book and the movie is mostly faithful to it. One difficulty in the adaptation is the book’s characters are painted in far more shades of gray than in the movie, which flattens and sweetens them. In the novel, the 10-year-old is far stranger, the 18-year-old more justified in her anger at her mother, and the wife is slowly revealed as someone rather profoundly unattractive, in spite of her beauty and wildness.
The baffled reaction of Clooney’s character to his kids and wife, and to the circumstances in which he finds himself, are not justified by what we see on screen. But they are justified on the page through Hemmings’s careful construction of her story, and her genuinely interesting portrayal of an old Hawaii family so spoiled by centuries in paradise that they don’t have a clue what treasures they have received from it.
Payne had no trouble with shades of gray in his previous work. So what happened here? Why did Payne chicken out and sacrifice the toughness that characterized his earlier work? I don’t know. But judging from the reviews and the Oscar nominations he and Clooney and the movie are going to get, he’s gotten away with it.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.