This family dramedy begins with unusually detailed narration: George Clooney, as put-upon patriarch Matt King, tells us, in great detail, his woes. Yes, he lives in Hawaii, but it isn’t some mythic land of endless happiness: cancer is just as deadly in paradise, he explains, as it is on the mainland. We are immediately sympathetic because, one, Matt’s problems are complex and dismal, and two, it’s George Clooney talking, and his voice is charming, even soothing, especially when he’s using it to curse his character’s fate.
Filmmaker Alexander Payne uses this to establish our immediate connection with Matt. By the time Matt starts acting like an asshole, however, the narration has disappeared. Funny that: Could it be that the filmmaker doesn’t want to increase the chances that we’ll turn on his protagonist?
Matt’s wife (who was cheating on him) has had an accident, and she’s in a coma. His teenage and tween daughters are acting out. His in-laws hate him. On top of all this, Matt’s the legal guardian of a family land trust that’s going to be dissolved in a few years. His cousins all want to cash in their undeveloped strip of paradise, but Matt’s not so sure.
There is a lot of good stuff inside The Descendants, including fine performances by Judy Greer and Robert Forster. But one grows weary of constantly being goaded into sympathy for a protagonist who never seems to realize how much of a jerk he is, and is never forced to confront this fact.
Once upon a time Alexander Payne made sharp satires like Election and About Schmidt. The characters played by Reese Witherspoon and Jack Nicholson in those films are monsters, but earn slivers of our sympathy because they don’t ask for it. Then he made Sideways, which was mean and fun for most of its running time, only to go limp at the end. The Descendants is pure mush from start to finish.