Alexander Payne’s characters are famously messed up: vain, feckless, striving creatures inclined to say the hilariously, and often poignantly, wrong thing; average people struggling against fate and their imperfections to do what is best for themselves and their families – and succeeding at best imperfectly, with some humor, humility and humanity.
In other words, flawed human beings: Paul Giamatti’s craven bachelor Miles in “Sideways” (2004), Jack Nicholson’s muddle-headed title character in “About Schmidt” (2002)” or Matthew Broderick’s clueless teacher in “Election” (1999) – all movies Mr. Payne directed and co-wrote.
His latest film, “The Descendants,” follows this formula down to a T that stands for trouble. George Clooney plays Matt King, a real estate lawyer in Hawaii whose wife, Liz, falls off water skis and into a coma in the opening scene. “We hadn’t seen each other in three days, hadn’t really spoken in three months,” Matt says in a lugubrious voiceover. The movie focuses on the couple’s broken marriage, their two vulgar and wayward daughters and Matt’s lamentable attempts at fatherhood and personhood. “I’m the backup parent,” he says pathetically. “The understudy.”
Sure, they live in Hawaii, but not the Hawaii of traveler’s postcards and vacation idylls. Played out over a soundtrack of classic Hawaiian country music, this Hawaii is a metaphor for the broken dreams and failed expectations that can befall and befoul anyone, anywhere. Paradise? Hardly. Matt says, “People think we’re immune to life, our families less screwed up, our heartaches less painful.”
So far, so good. All the elements for another Payne classic are in place: an exotic locale, an assortment of interesting oddball characters, a popular actor portraying a puerile Everyman, and a plot that sends them all careening into wildly emotional, often funny, misadventures.
In this case the misadventures run along parallel tracks. Matt is head of a family trust (the descendants of 19th-century island royalty) that owns the last tract of virgin beachfront territory in Hawaii. While he is considering various commercial development offers worth millions, his older daughter Alexandra (in a breakout performance by 20-year-old TV actress Shailene Woodley) informs him that her mother, the unconscious and dying Liz, had been unfaithful to him. “Don’t you get it?” she screams. “Mom’s been cheating on you! She was going to ask you for a divorce, she’s crazy about him.” Nice girl.
And here is where the movie goes awry. Instead of trying to do the right thing by his daughters, growing up as a father and coming to terms with his unfaithful wife’s imminent demise, he packs the girls up and heads off to stalk and finally confront the adulterer, a real estate agent who just happens to be involved in the complicated machinations of the family beachfront deal.
Like many of Alexander Payne’s characters who struggle to prevail over their own stupidity, “The Descendants” struggles to prevail too, only in this case it’s brought down by scene after scene of wrong turns, unlikely coincidences, vaguely credible motivation, inexplicable muddling and egregiously bad dialogue. The movie rolls along to unlikely and sometimes interesting, sometimes amusing, but mostly cringe-inducing plot elements, until it finally settles down in a heap at the end, when Matt finally shows faint glimmerings of growing up.
It is not paradise and – despite the director’s fine track record, the movie’s glowing reviews and packed movie houses – it is not very good filmmaking either. It is a movie in search of real life that makes bad choices trying to get there.