It brings me little pleasure to inform you that Alexander Payne’s new film “The Descendants” is something of a bore. This tale of angst among the privileged one-percenters never fails to hit every imaginable false note, creating a dismal cacophony of turgid emotion and lame comedy.
Hawaiian lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) is preparing to sell off a huge chunk of property that has been in his family since the white folks showed up in what used to be the Sandwich Islands. However, a significant distraction pops up: his wife was severely injured in a boating accident and is in a deep coma from which she may never recover.
If that’s not bad enough, Matt is forced to jettison his longstanding role as “the backup parent, the understudy” and become the guiding parental force for his daughters. However, ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and her teen-aged sister Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) are less than enthused by their father’s belated recognition of his parental responsibilities. Alexandra also has a stoner boyfriend (Nick Krause) who spends most of the film playing a “hey, dude” comic relief to slow-burning, uptight Matt.
If that’s not enough, Matt discovers that his wife was cheating on him at the time she had her boating accident. This gives Clooney the opportunity to do slapstick via an extended clumsy run in boat shoes (he looks like a frantic cassowary evading a predator) and melodrama via a confrontation with his wife’s lover (Matthew Lillard, who seems to have put on a bit of weight since his “Scooby Doo” halcyon days).
Unlike Payne’s earlier work, “The Descendants” does not have a single original idea to offer. The film is too silly when it tries to be serious and too stale when it tries to be funny. The film is especially obnoxious when the young girls hog the screen with Neil Simon-style wisecracks and whining. Clooney walks through the film with a wide-eyed and slightly agitated look – it is unclear if he is trying to look distressed or if his contact lenses are bothering him. His line readings are at a consistent monotone and it is impossible to feel anything for his character. Old-time scene-stealers Robert Foster and Beau Bridges are on hand in small overcooked roles that seem to be inserted into the film for the sole purpose of snagging them a chance for the Best Supporting Acting Oscar.
Payne has been responsible for creating such memorable films as “Election,” “About Schmidt” and “Sideways.” Everyone makes mistakes, and “The Descendants” is Payne’s.