In the film’s opening narration, Matt King (George Clooney) bemoans the view taken by most “mainlanders,” that to live in Hawaii is to spend your days drinking Mai Tais and waxing a surfboard, free from the troubles of the world. According to Matt this is absurd, as pain follows us wherever we are. Beautiful Hawaii may be, but it is not a vacuum or a charmed oasis. And yet, much of The Descendants is devoted to the astonishing splendor of the Hawaiian countryside; a choice wholly at odds with the protagonist’s initial frustration. This is an apt disconnect when considering the similar disparity between the film’s subject matter and its tone. Though Alexander Payne’s latest journey film is devoted to an exploration of grief’s gauntlet, it seems to spend just as much time trying to charm us. A choice that, ultimately, hurts more than it helps.
The hub of The Descendants is Matt’s wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), and a boating accident that puts her into a coma she won’t recover from. Once the decision has been made to take her off of life support, it falls to Matt and his seventeen-year-old daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) to travel the islands breaking the news to family and friends. In tow are Matt’s younger daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alex’s doofy but lovable buddy, Sid (Nick Krause). And complicating things further is the revelation that Elizabeth was cheating on Matt with a faceless Real Estate Agent named Bryan Speer (Matthew Lillard). On top of all that, Matt is the trustee for a group tasked with handling the future of a 1000-acre stretch of gorgeous Hawaiian country; a group on the verge of selling the land in a much publicized deal that nearly everyone has something to say about. This is a man on the verge.
Or so it should seem anyway. What individual could ever juggle all that and maintain their composure? And even if such a person exists, why would we want to watch a movie about him? While Matt says and does some things to suggest his emotional instability, he rarely seems genuinely agonized. This is the biggest failing of The Descendants, and it’s hard to articulate its origin. It could be that Clooney is miscast; his self-assuredness getting in the way of a character who must, first and foremost, express some serious volatility. But the “Clooney is one-note” argument has been mostly ended, and anyway, the peculiar emotional tone is not limited to his character. It seems far more likely that Payne is the one responsible for the brighter timbre in this, a film about loss and betrayal. To be clear, it’s not as though Matt is frolicking around the island, cracking wise about his wife’s impending death. There are at least two or three moments of real grief, and even more where the weight of the situation is appropriately conveyed. But the other half of The Descendants is charming and light, even unsuitably humorous, and the intention of this brevity is unclear. It’s almost as though Payne is combining two movies: one, a dark story about grief and a man losing his wife, and a second, in which a man’s wife has already died and he has to find his way back to the joy of life, his two sweet daughters urging him along the way.
Mostly Payne has given the audience too much to process. While this is almost certainly a factor in the discrepancy between tone and tale, it’s also the reason so many people are walking away from The Descendants with mostly good things to say. A torrent of subject matter, characters, and set pieces increase the likelihood that a viewer will take something positive away from the film, and apart from the film’s main dilemma, there’s actually are a lot of good things here. Though not taken through the emotional gambit he deserves, Matt King is nonetheless a likable character, his earnestness and closet full of Hawaiian shirts leaving him easy to root for. His two daughters are both charming and well-written, and different enough from one another to feel whole. The story has some concrete and very compelling things to say about family. Particularly the things we’ll do for them and the things they’ll do to us. And if The Descendants gets love from The Academy, there should be a significant bump in Hawaii’s tourism, because anybody who sees this flick will feel an obligation to visit the irrefutably gorgeous Aloha State. But it’s a film with unexplored potential, and those are often the hardest to feel good about. Had Alexander Payne done this or that differently, we could be talking about an emotional odyssey and a guaranteed Best Picture nomination instead of a decent, hot and cold dedication to Hawaii. There’s undoubtedly a difference between bad and ok. Unfortunately, the difference between ok and great is quite a bit larger.