AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL 2011
By Don Simpson | November 1, 2011
Director: Alexander Payne
Writers: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, Kaui Hart Hemmings (novel)
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster
Chinos and Hawaiian shirts are normal every day attire for Honolulu lawyer, Matt King (George Clooney); unfortunately, Matt’s life is not nearly as relaxed as his fashion sense. His wife, Elizabeth (Patti Hastie), is in a coma after a serious boating accident while Matt’s daughters, 17-year old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and 10-year old Scotty (Amara Miller), are both suffering through rebellious periods of their lives.
After prioritizing his career over his family for the last decade, Matt decides that it is prime time to buckle up and become a better husband and father. But… How? He starts by forging an alliance of sorts with Alexandra — who has been suddenly catapulted into the role of substitute mother for Scottie — which requires Matt to accept her mere-caricature-of-a-stoner-[boy]friend, Sid (Nick Krause) as more than the dumber-than-a-rock idiot he seems to be. It is a tough pill for Matt to swallow; but, against all odds, he pulls it off without beating the living shit out of him.
It is not without purpose that Matt’s change of heart towards his family occurs on the eve of his decision on what to do with his family’s 25,000 acres of virgin land on the island of Kauai. Matt and his family might be “haoles” (white Hawaiians), but they are also the direct descendants of the House of Kamehameha. Matt and his family have been collecting pitches from several developers; no matter which one Matt — the sole executor of the estate — chooses, the entire family will instantaneously become unfathomably rich.
It is far too predictable what Matt finally chooses to do with the land — though would we really desire any other possible ending? Writer-director Alexander Payne opts to give the audience exactly what they want, opting to turn The Descendants into pure, unfiltered Oscar fodder. Let’s just say that I can already guarantee that my mom will love The Descendants, and not just because she thinks George Clooney is one dreamy motherfucker (my words, not her’s — my mom is a good Catholic woman, while I am obviously not a good Catholic or a woman…though I do find Clooney to be quite dreamy). Clooney’s severely understated performance as a severely undemonstrative character — who is incredibly bland and undeniably average — is at the absolute heart of The Descendants’s appeal. As Payne did with Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt), Paul Giamatti (Sideways) and Thomas Haden Church (Sideways), he all but castrates Clooney to restrain his performance, leaving him as a mere shell of his formerly entertaining self. If only Payne could have done the same with Sid. I know Nick Krause is a local [Austin] boy done good, but the exaggerated jokiness of the Sid character really ruined The Descendants for me.