The Descendants (2011)
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Premise: A father (George Clooney) discovers that his wife was having an affair after a boating accident put her in a coma. At the same time, he officiates the sale of a large plot of land that has been in his family for generations.
What Works: The Descendants is one of those films that is primarily enjoyed for its performances. George Clooney is terrific as a father grappling with the total upheaval in his life. One of the most notable things about his performance is the restraint. There are a few scenes that could be played melodramatically but Clooney lets the emotions of the scene plays subtly over his face and he accomplishes a lot with a downcast gaze. Also impressive are the child actors, especially Shailene Woodley as the older daughter. Woodley plays a troubled adolescent and she is credible as a teenager; she is much smarter than a lot of teen characters in other movies but the character retains a youthful vulnerability. These performances are enabled by the smart script. The Descendants was directed and co-written by Alexander Payne, the filmmaker behind Election and Citizen Ruth, and he has very acute sense for creating stories that involve interesting ethical dilemmas that are exacerbated by the flaws of the characters. The Descendants does that very well by putting George Clooney’s character in the unique position of caring for a woman who has betrayed him. Infidelity stories generally suggest a simple good guy-bad guy conflict but by putting the unfaithful party in a vulnerable position the film sets up a very interesting tension in the audience’s sympathies.
What Doesn’t: The Descendants has multiple plot strands and they don’t come together very well. The film is primarily about a father reconnecting with his daughters but the film spends most of its time on Clooney’s character tracking down the man with whom his wife was having an affair. The younger daughter is not involved in the pursuit, nor is the older daughter’s boyfriend (Nick Krause) who is an extraneous character that serves no purpose in the story. The pursuit and eventual confrontation with the other man involves scenes of Clooney running around with his daughters in tow but not really doing anything with them that builds their relationship. Ultimately this subplot has very little payoff for all the time spent on it. This lack of payoff is also true of the real estate subplot, although that is ignored throughout much of the film. The resolution of this plotline does not really bring anything to a conclusion, nor does it meaningfully relate to the infidelity subplot or the burgeoning relationship between Clooney’s character and his daughters.
Bottom Line: The Descendants is a fairly good picture. It has some serious shortcomings in the plotting but the performances make it worth a look.
Episode: #105 (August 6, 2006)