Oscar Reviews: The Descendants betrays one of director's major strengths

by Andrew Doerfler / Beacon Staff • February 23, 2012

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Matt King (George Clooney)
Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight
Matt King (George Clooney)
Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight
Alexander Payne has made great films that carry inherent tragedy in their protagonists. Sideways had Paul Giamatti’s abrasive, wine-guzzling Miles Raymond; About Schmidt had Jack Nicholson’s despondent retiree Warren Schmidt. The movies rose above other reflective character studies because it was never certain if these men actually deserved redemption.

The Payne formula doesn’t pack the same punch with someone as charismatic, attractive, and successful at its core as Matt King (George Clooney). In The Descendants, King is a man struggling with two burdens: A dying wife who he has just discovered had been cheating before the accident that left her paralyzed, and the final decision for the future of a beautiful, untouched Hawaiian plot of land that developers are salivating over.

He’s a prudent and straight-thinking lawyer whose major flaw is that his commitment to work has left him negligent as a father and husband. But from the get-go, we see that King has a good head on his shoulders and does care deeply about his family. He immediately stands out from his bum relatives, who have squandered their family inheritances. And even though King has frequently been absent, his interactions with his children reveal a deep respect for them. It quickly becomes apparent that his wife’s inevitable passing, though unfortunate, is the kind of jolt he needs to push that relationship into a proper fatherhood. We know, not too long after he gathers his kids and sets out to inform his wife’s lover of the accident, that this man will come through in the end. It’s the kind of future that was never so certain for Schmidt or Raymond.

The Descendants still boasts the same dry charm and and low-key drama that mark Payne’s previous efforts. And Clooney is, of course, naturally engaging enough to keep an audience along for this journey of self-discovery. But ultimately the film’s turns are all too expected and the stakes all too low.