Movie review by Greg Carlson
Bad movies set in Hawaii vastly outnumber good ones. Elvis, Gidget, Charlie Chan, Ma and Pa Kettle, and the Brady Bunch have used the idyllic location as a stunning backdrop. Adam Sandler went there for “50 First Dates” and returned recently for the putrid “Just Go with It.” For every “Punch-Drunk Love” (which only manages a detour), we have more examples like the pathetic 2004 version of “The Big Bounce.” “The Descendants” falls into the category of Hawaii-based stories determined to move beyond tourist views and postcard snapshots to show a dimension of the islands rarely explored on film. That aspect, however, is largely ignored in favor of a family drama mired in the midlife male milieu.
Alexander Payne’s first feature in seven years, “The Descendants” alludes to the complicated relationship between indigenous inhabitants and the interlopers who profited from Hawaii’s resources. George Clooney plays Matt King, one of the beneficiaries indicated by the title, a mixed-blood attorney smart enough to recognize that he and his extended family are still “haole,” no matter how many generations have lived and died on the islands. While King is preoccupied with the impending sale of a family-trust owned parcel of unspoiled beachfront, his wife suffers a devastating injury in a boating accident, and in the course of addressing the dire situation with his daughters, discovers that his spouse was unfaithful to him.
King decides to track down his wife’s lover, and the resulting – and wildly improbable – coincidence that stitches together the two principal plot threads pulls hard on the film’s credibility. Coupled with one of the master devices of soap opera scum, the lingering coma, Payne mortars the bricks of the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings with an unhurried hand that would yield better results if the dialogue wasn’t so simple. “The Descendants” shows and tells, and shows and tells again, until the viewer begins to believe that this sort of suffering is universal, and even happens to handsome millionaires who live in an earthly paradise.
George Clooney’s saintly householder lacks much of the corrosive edge that Payne has been so consistent in applying to his protagonists. From hot-potato debut “Citizen Ruth” to career best “Election” and on through the bigger commercial successes of “About Schmidt” and “Sideways,” the filmmaker has eagerly presented rough characters who often resist immediate likability in favor of richer, more nuanced inner and outer lives. Clooney, whose easy charm and calm confidence place him in close proximity to classic-era idols like Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, and William Powell, works hard to humanize King by filling him with insecurity and self doubt, a task made tougher by unnecessary voiceover that throttles the viewer with insulting obviousness.
How are we supposed to accept Clooney’s “backup parent” as an exasperated everyman when he is privileged with so much power, wealth, and beauty? The man’s bloodline flows back to Hawaiian royalty. He has sole decision-making authority over a flock of cousins seeking his favor in the real estate deal. Somehow, Clooney the actor carries the whole endeavor on his shoulders, reassuring skeptical moviegoers that Everything Will Be OK and that “The Descendants” depicts the kind of thing that we could all experience, even when it really doesn’t.