Alexander Payne just won the Best Adapted Screenplay award from the WGA for The Descendants. Frankly, I am mystified. I am a fan of both Payne and George Clooney but the movie left me cold. J. Hoberman writing in The Village Voice is spot on:
Despite the large, and talented, cast that Payne has assembled, The Descendants revolves entirely around its supremely amiable star. But, even with the crutch provided by an insistent voiceover, Clooney’s part is underwritten. Moreover, the actor’s own blessings are so evident that it’s hard to accept him as the beleaguered (if fabulously wealthy) everyman that the movie demands he be. With supporting characters called upon to react toward him or develop around him as necessary in a given situation, the narrative feels less like an unfolding novel than like an inflated short story. Slowly rolling downhill, The Descendants takes a turn or two but is basically always en route toward the reconciliation that’s a foregone conclusion.
The film offers little surprise and less character development. We are told that Matt King (George Clooney) is a workaholic but there is absolutely NO evidence that’s true. Even in the midst of a family crisis, like a spouse being serious injured and in a coma, a workaholic’s cell phone would keep ringing, his blackberry would keep updating, and his emails would continue to pour in. King’s electronic devices are strangely silent. Did the secretary at his busy law practice forget his phone number? Did all his appointments get mysteriously cancelled? Did his clients suddenly have no crises of their own which need his attention? We never see King wrestle with the urgency of two competing emergencies or have to battle where to put his attention– on the personal or professional. He is totally focused on his immediate family situation with absolutely no outside interference. This begs credibility for anyone who has ever been torn between a personal emergency and a demanding job.
King’s daughters allegedly don’t really know their dad (“I’m the back-up parent”). Yet he immediately gathers his daughters to his side. Wouldn’t it be easier to just leave them in boarding school, hire a nanny, or throw money or other resources at his kids if he were truly as disengaged as he is alleged to be? He even puts up with a goofy social inept boyfriend as a travel companion to make the trip easier on his daughter. There is some initial teen and tween snottiness over the course of the family road trip but King very quickly forms a warm and loving bond with his daughters. Sure there is squabbling, bickering, and mocking but that is the nature of kids. It seems there is much more animosity and bitterness directed toward their comatose mom. His older daughter is furious at her mother for cheating on King with a glad-handing over-eager real estate broker. Immediately taking her father’s side in no way indicates she thinks her father is a jerk, a bad guy, or a lousy father. This is the story of a preoccupied but relatively good dad who becomes a somewhat better dad. Not a very dramatic character arc.
If a woman is going to cheat on the wealthy, charming, handsome King (he’s GEORGE CLOONEY) with a slightly dweeby somewhat desperate real estate broker I want to know why. Is she choosing a lesser man to embarrass or humiliate her husband, does her new lover put her husband to shame in some important respect, or is there some manipulative plot afoot having to do with the family land deal? The affair is a mystery and just isn’t credible. Her father does accuse King of being too cheap to buy his daughter her own boat but, again, we never see any evidence or action that indicates he is stingy in any of his dealings. He doesn’t complain about the cost of bring the obnoxious boyfriend along. He doesn’t scrimp on meals or anything having to do with the road trip. The script tells us lots of things about various characters but never show us these characteristics in action. Again, not the essence of compelling drama.
Then there is the land deal itself. The King family came into their inheritance because of an interracial marriage between a great-great-grandfather and a Hawaiian princess. This union had to be scandalous in its day. Yet now, when interracial marriage is common in Hawaii and elsewhere, there isn’t a single Polynesian family member to be found. What is with that? If this is a film about family and if disposing of the family property gets so much screen time– why aren’t family cultural issues and differences at the heart of the dispute. Any one who has a mixed family of any kind knows these kind of cultural differences surface under stress particularly when vast sums of money is involved. Yet, even though King, has the deciding vote, his family is unusually passive and mellow when it comes down to the actual decision. Little drama here and even less credibility.
Much has been made of the Hawaiian setting and the film’s sense of place. Yet, given the white-bread nature of the family and lack of cultural specificity, I think the film could just as easily be set in Minnesota and the dispute be over acres of pristine lake front property. Other than the lush landscape shots there is nothing in the story that makes it particularly Hawaiian.
I’ll close with a summation from Dana Stevens writing for Slate:
This is the setup for exactly the kind of story Payne does best: road movies about less-than-heroic oddballs on quests that are at once transformative and essentially ridiculous. I was so excited to see what he’d do with this misfit crew once he rounded them up and sent them on their journey. But The Descendants squanders the comic energy of its opening act. Once the Kings get to Kauai, Payne seems content to sit back and watch as the family pads around the spectacular shoreline, alternately squabbling and bonding. Matt eventually has a brief, awkward encounter with the man who made him a cuckold, and also a meeting with his barfly cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), who has his own plans for that chunk of family property. Amid all this desultory beachcombing, Matt learns hard lessons about his wife, his daughters, and himself—but they’re lessons any discerning viewer already saw coming a mile away.
I found the film predictable, lacking in character development, with a script that continually tells us rather than shows us. This is not a recipe for a Best Adapted Screenplay award. Best Director perhaps, there some really engaging and tender moments in the performances, or Best Cinematography perhaps, the views are gorgeous– but in no way is this underwritten screenplay a Best in the writing category.