The Descendants is a film about adultery, death and bad parenting, with a side-element concerning race and real-estate in Hawaii. It is directed and co-written by Alexander Payne, who rose to fame with the terrific 1999 satire, Election. None of his subsequent films have been quite as good, though the Oscar-winning Sideways had its pleasures.
All Payne's movies are centered on hapless middle-aged or late-middle-aged men, and the cynicism apparent in his debut has increasingly curdled into the misanthropic contempt that made his About Schmidt a sour experience.
His latest is an adaptation of a novel by the Hawaiian writer, Kaui Hart Hemmings. It is about Matt King (George Clooney), a wealthy, part-Hawaiian lawyer who is wrestling with whether to sell the virgin forests that he and his cousins have inherited. He is also dealing with the fact that his risk-taking wife has had a boating accident and is in a coma from which she is unlikely to recover. This means looking after his difficult 10- and 17-year old daughters full-time. If that were not bad enough, he discovers that his wife had been having an affair.
Matt has apparently been so caught up in his legal work, despite the laid-back, flowery shirted Hawaiian lifestyle, that he barely knows his kids and has no clue how to talk to them. His fatherly incompetence pushes credulity and he is generally such a pathetic pushover that it is hard to believe him as a successful lawyer.
There are some amusing moments, but Matt's mostly miserable journey is often hard to watch (again and again you would want to slap him - if you still cared enough). Like many of the characters in the film, he is so lacking in sympathetic qualities that his travails are less involving than they ought to be.
Perhaps Payne thought that Clooney's Gable-like charm would be enough to make the character sympathetic. Unfortunately The Descendants boasts a rare poor performance by the star. You can see him acting away, self-consciously adopting a hunched, stiff walk and a flat-footed, unathletic run. It is surprising given Payne's superb skill with actors.
Clooney's turn that seems all the less convincing set against several terrific supporting performances. Perhaps the most remarkable is that by Shailene Woodley as Matt's rebellious 17-year -old daughter, Alexandra.
Then there is Robert Forster, the appealing late '60s star brought out of retirement by Quentin Tarantino for Jackie Brown. Here, as Matt's father-in-law, a tough, old-fashioned man dealing with his wife's Alzheimer's and his daughter's imminent death, he gives a wonderfully nuanced performance, while pulling off a perfect Hawaiian accent.
What a shame that the underlying story is so unsatisfying.