Telluride Review: Alexander Payne's New Dramedy 'The Descendants'
by Alex Billington
September 3, 2011
The first film I caught at the Telluride Film Festival was writer/director Alexander Payne's long-awaited follow-up to Sideways, a Hawaii-set dramedy called The Descendants, adapted from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. The film stars George Clooney and, as expected for Payne, is a drama-comedy mix that switches tones in an instant and deals with sometimes very heavy, emotional subject matter, but fits in some snappy, humorous dialogue. Alas, I wasn't a big fan, I felt like the dialogue was forced most of the time, and Clooney didn't fully impress me as much as he did in Up in the Air, but it may just be me who feels this way.
Payne's The Descendants is about a father and lawyer named Matt King (played by George Clooney), whose relatives have owned land on Hawaii for hundreds of years. The film starts with his wife, whom he hasn't had the best relationship with in recent years, in a coma in the hospital after a boating accident. Matt thinks this traumatic situation might finally bring him closer to his wife and his two kids, his 10-year-old daughter named Scottie (played by Amara Miller) and a 17-year-old daughter named Alexandra (played by Shailene Woodley). As he attempts to deal with the situation, we learn through the older daughter that his wife had an affair and that's when things get quite crazy. But it's still a story about the looming death of a loved one.
After much consideration, I think I know why I didn't connect with this film as much as others - I haven't been married, or gone through a rough divorce, or watched a loved one slowly pass away in a hospital. And I believe Alexander Payne makes films that connect mostly with older adults, those who have gone through those kind of experiences, and although I tried to feel the emotion, it didn't connect. The biggest problems with Descendants lie in the script, and subsequently the dialogue. It seemed as if they took a PG-13 script and punched it up with cursing just to make it more "real", but almost every single line of dialogue with a curse word felt forced, it didn't feel like natural discourse. I could never buy the dialogue most of the time.
However, similar to Payne's Sideways, I also think The Descendants is a film that with time, and with more discussion and consideration, will be something that I appreciate more. Even trying to write this review, I've been thinking about how complex and intriguing the elements of its story are, and how we often don't see films with that much complexity. It's well-made and is set entirely in Hawaii, showing us a side of paradise we don't much see either - the non-touristy side about the people who live and work on the islands. Despite my issues with the dialogue and disconnection with the emotion it was trying to convey, the film has some stellar performances and is a fairly entertaining dramedy worth seeing, especially if the story interests you.
While I don't think this is Clooney's best performance, he does a great job playing Matt King, as he balances the nuanced, calm side of King, and his wild, angry side (when it comes out), too. However, two of the best performances in the film are Shailene Woodley, who plays his older daughter, and surprisingly Matthew Lillard, who shows up in the later half of the film. So far, I know I'm one of the few who didn't totally love this film, but I honestly felt like it wasn't as good as it could have been. I just couldn't connect with it and the rough dialogue pulled me out far too often. But I'll take another look in November once it hits theaters.
Alex's Telluride Rating: 6.5 out of 10