Alexander Payne’s latest dramedy The Descendants delves into problematic territory with an exploration of infidelity in a time of turmoil. Confined to a hospital bed while comatose, Matt King’s (George Clooney) wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) has little time to live. With two troublesome daughters of varying extremes, Matt also plays a seminal role as signatory with an enclosing contract of a large piece of picturesque land owned by his family for generations.
Amidst the hustle and bustle of privilege affluence, Matt and his youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) decided to pull wayward older rebel daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) from her boarding school on the Hawaiian mainland to come home. Taking an awkward turn into the second act, Alex reveals an infidelity of comatose Liz and all hell effectively breaks loose.
Trouble seems to envelop the first act of The Descendants. In fact, everything about it is troubling: the comatose wife, the rebellious daughters, the impending land transaction, the infidelity and most importantly, the painful, over excessive expository narration. Completely unnecessary, the narration distracts and detracts. Payne has been known to use voice overs, most interestingly in Election, where three character’s thoughts use the technique to express internal thoughts. This is not the case with The Descendants, and instead uses the technique as an audio book function. This is not an audio book.
Clooney’s performance is fine, but is overshadowed by the strong performance of Shailene Woodley, of television’s Secret Life of An American Teenager fame. Complex and multi-layered, Woodley is uncompromising in her performance. Thankfully the second act picks up a much needed momentum and has some poignant moments. Clooney’s character does redeem himself, but not enough to combat against the hurling abuse he deals to his dying wife.
The nature that infidelity takes as a theme is the troubling aspect of the film, which harps back to the source material, written by Kaui Hart Hemmings and adapted by Payne, Jim Rash and Nat Faxon. Trumping imminent death, the betrayal seems to take centre stage for the majority of the film. Perhaps it is just the form of grief that Matt is taking, but it does feel disproportionate (especially when he ushers an emotional Julie (Judy Greer) out of the hospital room.) Thankfully, death remerges as the main event and the film benefits.
Difficult and trying in both subject matter and execution, The Descendants does gain weight as it progresses and surpasses expectations.
The Descendants opened theatrically in Australia on 12 January, 2012 through 20th Century Fox.