Hey, it’s Mutual Oscarbation, our awards season feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out during what sorts of movies Academy members are hanging loose. This week they watch Alexander Payne’s The Descendants wipe out.
I’m shocked, Henry; I really believed that life in paradisaical places was likewise heavenly all the time, no matter what. Matt King (George Clooney)—the puppy-faced patriarch descended from Hawaiian royalty in beach bum real estate melodrama grief porn The Descendants—helpfully squashes that assumption in his irksome opening voice-over: “Paradise can go fuck itself!” Whoa, hang loose bro! He’s understandably upset after his thrill-seeking wife ends up in a coma following a boating accident, leaving him alone with his annoying daughters. He initially seems poised to persevere and emerge from near-tragedy a better man; he even says, in voice-over, “I’m ready to be a real husband and a real father.” But, Henry, much like this movie, things in paradise don’t always get better. What do you think, is The Descendants‘ condescending, plodding tone a result of sloppy literary adaption (by director Alexander Payne, with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, from the same-titled novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings), or is it the ludicrous put-on Hawaiian-ness?
I’m gonna say both, Ben. One of the many, many things that irked me about this movie was that, despite some shallow trappings, it wasn’t about Hawaii at all—it was merely set there; the archipelago’s greatest functions were to provide an ironic counterpoint to the narrative’s tribulations, and as weather for a comedy of casual dress. (Oh, and to allow Clooney to explain how “archipelago” is a metaphor for his family!) I got the sense that Hemmings’ novel likely drew a sharp allegorical connection between Clooney’s wife’s death-state and Hawaiian history, but the screenwriters can hardly be bothered to establish it, despite that opening monologue and the retained title. Hey Ben, maybe if there’s a late-act speech or something it’ll all become clear? But this failure just highlights a larger problem: the movie’s lazy loyalty to its source material. Every year has such shit adaptations—last year, it was Never Let Me Go; the year before that, The Lovely Bones and The Time Traveler’s Wife—that, in a misguided attempt to honor the original prose (usually through voice-over), spend too much time telling what should be shown, expend too much effort underlining what should be left implied—or, conversely, skipping over essential information in order to hit plot points. If Payne esteems Hemmings’ book, he should have just reread it; this movie does nothing but demean it. (Unless it’s bad, in which case he simply does it no favors.) The movie ends up structured as a series of meaningful conversations piled on top of each other—airings of grievances, comings to terms—that highlight the personal at the expense of any enriching, grander historical meaning, and give a lot of supporting actors (Robert Forster, Judy Greer) a chance to mug for Oscars. What did you make of all that melodrama, Ben?
As you said, Henry, it seems likely that the novel did more to mesh the strands of this tripartite narrative—its family melodrama, its real estate dispute, its Hawaiian identity crisis—but Payne keeps them awkwardly separate. So we get a looped sequence with a scene of father-daughter bonding followed by a meeting regarding the King property sale followed by a lesson about being Hawaiian, and repeat. I was hopeful that these disparate elements would grow less so near film’s end, especially when Matt (Clooney) goes against his clan’s wishes and refuses to sell the family property to a developer. (Was this latent environmentalism, or just more faux pro-Hawaiian-ness?) In any case, all I found myself interested in was the dynamic between Matt and his eldest daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), especially when they became tag-teaming adultery avengers. An adaptation more exclusively focused on the father-daughters plot—one that acquiesced less to its source material’s concern for land and leis—might’ve actually been pretty good. Instead, my favorite thing about The Descendants ended up being its most ill-fitting and extraneous character, slapstick surfer dude Sid (Nick Krause), who offered the film’s best advice in pitch-perfect bro brogue: “Come on, Matt, that’s a little intense.” Did you also find Clooney’s performance a little intense, Henry, or were you more annoyed by Payne’s many confounding choices, like not cutting the Sid character entirely?
Exactly, Ben—one man’s Sid is another man’s contrivance. This movie features all the trappings of a Payne movie: the regional specificity, the beleaguered middle-aged sad sack hero, and the thing that bugs me most about Payne’s movies—his brand of supporting characters. Payne-wise, The Descendants reminded me most of About Schmidt; it features a strong, well developed central character (played by a capable actor) surrounded by caricatures, archetypes and narrative devices. Everyone character but Clooney’s is a cartoon: the precocious and sass-mouthed daughter, the volatile teenager, the stoner guy, the Hawaii-mellowed cousins, the crusty father-in-law, and on and on and on. (This is also what I don’t like about many Coen Bros. movies, especially the not most recent ones.) I could see how Clooney would garner awards-attention for his strong performance, which holds the movie together. But, Ben, how anything else in this movie could be worthy of anything but rebukes confounds me.