Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
Looking back, the most annoying scene from the preview for The Descendants may have embodied what, for me, made Payne’s film so underwhelming. The trailer’s most memorable scene is when Matt King’s (George Clooney) father-in-law, Scott Thorson (Robert Forster), announces to family friend tag-a-long Sid (Nick Krause), “I’m going to punch you,” and then follows through. Which is to say: The film’s comedic elements felt contrived, thereby diminishing the effectiveness of what could have been compelling drama.
This is not to say that Payne’s film doesn’t have its moments. Presumably, The Descendants is about the responsibility Matt has to cultivate a better future for his daughters by being a more available father. He is hit harshly by the realization that he is not just a steward of monetary and proprietary resources; after a tragic boating accident leaves his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), on life support, Matt begins reflecting on how he is also a steward of the relationships he has been given. In this way — much like 50/50 — The Descendants is about how it often takes a tragic jolt to the senses to re-calibrate our debt of gratitude to others, particularly loved ones.
In the tragedy’s aftermath, we learn along with Matt that his wife was having an affair with a real estate salesman named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). With his wife days from death, Matt recognizes acutely what their poor marriage has cultivated in their children. His 17-year-old daughter is so out of line that she had to be sent to boarding school where she is an embittered, drunken, and foul-mouthed mess, and his 10-year-old daughter insults her classmates and has a propensity for passing around a one-fingered obscenity. Given a dying mother leaving behind a dying marriage, the girls are beset with insecurities.
Part of the reason, then, why The Descendants was disappointing and unaffecting for me is that the focus of the film shifts away from this primary narrative about Matt’s responsibility to his daughters. The film’s second half focuses almost entirely on Matt’s quest to confront Speer, and then Payne attempts to connect this quest to Matt’s decision to sell or keep the land that has been passed down to him by his Hawaiian ancestors. The problem is not so much that these two elements of Payne’s story could not have connected well with Matt’s responsibility as a father. Rather, it is that they are not supplemented well enough by this primary problem, and, thus, they ultimately fail to provoke emotional resonance.
Rather than confront the underlying reasons for Matt’s family being like “separate islands,” the second half of the film feels exaggerated in its focus on he and his eldest daughter’s (Shailene Woodley) comedic quest to track down Elizabeth’s lover. And the result is an (anti) climactic scene in which Matt and Speer’s wife confront a comatose Elizabeth in the hospital — a scene that felt like a failure because it left me unsure whether it was trying to make me laugh or cry; the failure, of course, is reflected in that I was even thinking about what it was trying to do.
Near the end of the film is a scene that was visually arresting, but that I didn’t feel invested in at all. As Matt and his daughters overlook the beautiful land that their family has owned for generations, they reflect on memories they’ve shared in the past and memories they still want to make together as a family moving forward. But by this point, I’m too busy thinking about the film’s downward spiral to think about the stewardship involved in ancestral proceedings.