The Descendants gets off to a rocky start, a problem that even director Alexander Payne meekly copped to during last week’s New York Film Festival press conference. While he seemed cautiously self-critical when he said that his lumpy character study was “slightly too voiceover-heavy,” he certainly wasn’t wrong. In the film’s first 15 minutes, Matt King (George Clooney) exposits up a storm largely through voiceover narration. He redundantly and unceremoniously tells us about his impending business deal and his frustration with not knowing how to handle his two estranged daughters now that his wife has fallen into a coma.
Payne did himself a disservice by saying that this information deluge was his foolhardy way of immediately giving viewers all the dirt they need to understand Matt’s situation. If anything, the film’s voiceover is a key extension of Matt’s absence as both a father and a husband leading up to the events depicted in the film. It’s an inhospitable but nonetheless understandable creative decision, one that perfectly introduces us to a role for Clooney that few viewers would peg him with: a guileless and conflicted provider.
Normally, Clooney’s debonair onscreen persona has made the star seem like the quintessential bachelor and sex icon. That longstanding image was jokingly confirmed in a number of ways at Sunday’s press conference, like when Clooney teased co-star Judy Greer about how they first worked together in Three Kings, where their first scene together was a sex scene. Greer clearly remembered the experience, “Yeah, crazy sex,” she recalled while laughing. “Sex I never even knew about!”
When Payne co-adapted Kaui Hart Hemmings’s eponymous novel, he wrote Matt with Clooney in mind. Payne said that Clooney was his “his first and only choice for the part.” Clooney reciprocated by joked that he was determined to take the part, “whether I read the script or not―which didn’t work with Batman and Robin, by the way.”
Despite the grating way in which both his personality and problems are initially set up, Matt King is one of Clooney’s most satisfying recent roles. Matt’s family and friends care for him. But he can’t help but feel like he and his two daughters Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) are, as he explains in his voiceover, like the Hawaiian islands where the film is set. They’re geographically close but over time, are slowly “drifting apart” from each other.
Matt hasn’t been there for his family in the past. Now that his wife is in a coma and is, as it’s quickly revealed, showing no sign of improvement, Matt realizes just how powerless he’s allowed himself to become. Case in point, he discovers that his wife was having an affair with Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), a local realtor. Full of anger but determined to try to let the past go, Matt goes on a long, cross-island search to confront Brian with his daughters in tow.
Proximity and physical distance are a key part of the very literal way in which Payne represents Matt’s general feelings of estrangement. Payne’s film is at its best when he’s depicting the way Matt relates to the people he loves rather than having Clooney talk about it directly. In one exemplary scene, Matt has an uncomfortable bar-side conversation about his wife with one of his cousins (Beau Bridges) that’s shot in a series of slowly constricting close-ups. The way Payne visualizes Matt’s sense of alienation is a little too on-the-nose. But other times, his telegraphed punches still deliver a mighty blow, as in a wordless final scene where Matt sits down to eat ice cream and watch TV with his two daughters. Despite its drawbacks, Payne’s transparent approach is also what makes The Descendants a mostly satisfying look at one man’s attempt to let go of the past and be a better parent.
Payne wouldn’t have a movie worth watching at all without Clooney and the irrepressible chemistry he shares with the film’s terrific ensemble cast. Since Matt intuitively learns that all he has to do to be a good dad is just be there, it’s fitting that Clooney said that a key part of his process was just bonding with his co-stars. “It’s mostly about spending time with one another,” Clooney explained. “The personal process in general is about trusting one another. A big part of it is just getting to know [my co-stars], the ability to feel comfortable enough to give each other shit.” Right after saying that, Clooney jokingly told Miller to cover her ears. Clooney’s not a traditional authority figure, on-screen or off, but he’s got a good role to work with in The Descendants and he certainly knows how to play the part.
Simon Abrams is a NY-based film, tv and comics critic for various outlets, including the Village Voice, the Onion’s A.V. Club and Wide Screen. He collects his writing on film at Extended Cut.