NYFF 2011 Review: Alexander Payne's THE DESCENDANTS

The pleasures to be found in The Descendants are decidedly small-scale, and the film will likely preside as a minor feature in Payne's filmography, which will hopefully pick up speed this decade.

rating: 3.5

Alexander Payne's return to the silver screen has been long-awaited, considering the director's last feature was 2004's Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar winner Sideways. The Descendants, his newest film, falls in line with the helmer's oeuvre - Matt King (George Clooney), a Hawaiian hapa-haole (or "half-white," thank you press release), a lawyer and a descendant of royalty, navigates unfamiliar waters when his wife is incapacitated in a boating accident. The absentee dad is immediately saddled with care of his two daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley) - two young ladies who neither have much patience nor respect for their father. When Clooney receives some significantly devastating news from Alex, he embarks on a journey to find Brian (Matthew Lillard), with Scottie, Alex, and her friend/emotional support Sid (Nick Krause) in tow. It's a struggle to pen this review without any evident spoilers, since both the trailer and most press materials for the film reveal two major plot points from the get-go. It's this writer's preference that the reveals be limited to the film itself - there's still plenty to be discussed when it comes to Payne's latest, not least of all Clooney's performance. Clooney revels in playing an everyman, and while his looks and natural swagger could have easily paved a profitable career, the former star of Batman & Robin has achieved recognition as an actor known for taking on challenging roles. Payne's recognizes Clooney's face as a major asset and the film develops a habitual obsession with close-ups as Matt grows considerably more exhausted and haunted. This is his story, and despite an all-around stellar cast, it's Clooney's show. That's not to say it's all gloom - like most of Payne's work, there's an easy marriage of melancholy, light drama, male soul-searching, and the occasional burst of humor. Payne makes character and dialogue driven films and the substantial satisfaction The Descendants delivers is indebted to Payne's intimate understanding of moments, those unique instances where you can lean back, heave a sigh and think, cup your face in your hands and briefly escape. A mid-film conversation between Matt and Sid, until then relegated to surfer-dude comic relief, is lovingly understated and notes a key theme of The Descendants: acceptance, and to a lesser degree, forgiveness. Based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the film bears some novelistic features that don't work as well as Payne's previous adaptations. A wealth of information is relayed via voiceover in the first act, a cliched move and one that the director has recently defended as the best way to deliver major information regarding a B-plot - Matt presiding over the sale of ancestral land, a bounty that is to be shared with a big family consisting mostly of cousins. While this B-plot reinforces several themes of the film, (note Matt's last name and naturally the title of the film), it comes off largely as a plot machination, a late reveal raising the stakes when the film could have easily planted its feet firmly and explored Clooney's sudden thrust into fatherhood and his journey to find Matthew Lillard's Brian. That's not to say the film is a crowded affair - it has a pulse all it's own and rarely feels rushed for the sake of tiding up. Perhaps it's the fact that outside of Matt, no one rises to the forefront - Election's Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) had Matthew Broderick's Jim as an opposing current and Sideways focused on the quarter of Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, and Sandra Oh. The Descendants is a one man affair, and Clooney works hard, but the film can't shake the feeling of a fleeting pleasure - the heart is in the right place, but when it tugs on your heartstrings, it's easy to shake off the blues. The pleasures to be found in The Descendants are decidedly small-scale, and the film will likely preside as a minor feature in Payne's filmography, which will hopefully pick up speed this decade. The Descendants opens in the US on November 18th and in the UK on January 27th.
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