The Decendants – The end of the unpleasant man and the start of the unpleasant film. (Film Review)
It’s eleven yeas later in 2011, and we haven’t seen a new Payne film, and this absence of a much-loved film maker might account for the disproportionate worship The Descendants received when it finally hit the screens; immediately obvious is the absence of Jim Taylor who, we can now safely contend, was primarily responsible for holding Payne’s moralizing at bay and largely accountable for the shadow boxing with unpleasant male leads, because The Descendants sees some of the most problematic issues in Payne’s oeuvre brought to the fore and the most interesting disappearing all together. Matt King is easily the least accessible and least recognisable (and therefore inscrutable) of all Payne’s characters, immediately abandoning the audience to a position of passive observer because I doubt many of Payne’s viewers have the hands on experience of being a multimillionaire land baron from Hawaii, and finally Payne gets to eliminate the female voice completely by placing his female lead in a coma for the entire film, leaving her portion of a narrative entirely about the problems of her own relationship to her husband who is so revoltingly nice it is immediately obvious why any human creature worth their salt would cheat on him, and whose mantra, spat out at Elizabeth’s best friend is “It’s never the woman’s fault.” Without exception, all the defenders of Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie) are the films most horrible people with the follow-up being anyone else who opposes Matt in whatever it is he is trying to do.
If Helen Schmidt’s infidelity was forgiven through the realisation of her husbands neglect, then Payne rectified that problem with the character of Elizabeth King. Both women are not in the film to defend themselves, and both rely on the generosity of their husbands to give their infidelity a human face, unlike the infidelities of Jim McAllister in Election, and Jack Cole in Sideways who are both given comic relief and a happy ever after for their ugliness, but a special kind of hell is reserved for Elizabeth King who isn’t even allowed to retain the love of her children in the face of the overwhelming cruelty her infidelity caused on her husband, who is the only Payne male to appear with no discernible flaws, even if some are feebly concocted in reference only, passing as some sort of concession to politesse. Matt King (George Clooney) is supposed to have distanced himself from his family, a “problem” that is so inconsequential that he experiences almost no repercussion from it, except of course, that his wife cheated but that is rapidly established to be her problem and not his. Kings frugality (he lives by the condescending mantra “give them enough to do something but not enough to do nothing”) is also touted as being at cause of Elizabeth’s infidelity, when he should have provided for her so that “She could go shopping as women love to do” a direct quote from the deliberately nasty father figure Scott (Robert Foster) and that King should have bought his wife her own boat, because that might have prevented the accident that rendered her comatose (unless you want to belive what Payne undoubtedly does, that it was really her infidelity that brought her fatal accident about). To add insult to injury, King’s perverse and sickeningly generous investigations into the man with whom his wife was having the affair, in which he includes both his daughters (because they don’t already hate their mother enough) result in the revelation that Elizabeth King was being duped by her lover and her plans to being integrity to her life by leaving her husband and committing to her lover are revealed to be the foolish pipe dreams of an immature girl/woman at best and the willful ignorance of the most intensely selfish at worst.
Abuse is hurled at the comatose Elizabeth King for the bulk of the film, from her daughters accusation that she had too many facials through to her husbands claim that he dreamed of divorcing her some day too. It is one of the most appalling examples of a single sided argument ever displayed in a film, but is made markedly worse by the pandering, overly nice characterisation of Matt King, who is played to new heights of puppy dog pathos by the far too good-looking, wide-brown-eyed George Clooney whose great moment of transformation occurs when he can wholeheartedly forgive his wife for being the devil incarnate. Supposedly King’s lessons lie in his finally taking responsibility for his position as head of his family both immediate and extended, but none of the insightful providers self-justified neglect shows up, as the character study of Warren Schmidt did so powerfully, and we get the feeling King was just busy loving his family from afar, rather than any sort of narcissism or solipsism so interestingly prevalent in Payne’s male characters when he had co-writer Jim Taylor to work with him. Every character in The Descendants is hurried and poorly conceived, from the drug taking teen who seems to immediately get over her problem when she is able to join her father in vilifying her mother, the younger daughters emotional acting out that just disappears with no explanation to the cash strapped extended family who are a hotch-potch of eclectic ideas never fully realised that may or may not be Matt Kings enemies depending on how much you enjoy seeing an aging Beau Bridges with long Hawaiian hair.
Unlike Payne’s direction of his unlikable males, george Clooney looks like he is asleep for the bulk of the film, none of the subtle but powerful internalized body affects appearing in the performance, no aching awareness of his own frailties (mostly because Matt King has none) none of the subverted self-loathing. At some point, moved by … we’re never sure what… was it his wife’s infidelity?.. or the hotness of his rivals wife?.. or the fact that his youngest daughter never camped there?.. King decides to “save the earth” in the form of a large tract of impossibly beautiful land, stunningly captured by Phedon Papamichael but sitting in direct opposition to Kings original assertion revealed in a voiceover by Clooney, that living in Hawaii isn’t any different to living anywhere else. Familiar Payne tropes exist, such as the road trip and the lands abilities to evoke transformation, and Payne’s lovely direction remains strong but the script is a terrible mess, and Payne’s moralising a travesty of irrational hysteria. Strangely, The Descendants received multiple awards and critical acclaim, even more strangely for its weakest aspect, the script which won best adapted screenplay. If that is accurate (I haven’t read Hemmings novel) one can only assume these horrible character problems have been faithfully reconstructed from the original work, but somehow I doubt that is the case.