Paynefully hard to like – The Descendants

Ah crap. This type of movie leaves me in such a dilemma. Such a dilemma. This week I went to see The Descendants, the Hawaii-based drama from Alexander Payne everyone is raving about. So now I feel incredibly left out for feeling almost nothing walking out of the cinema afterwards. It’s like Slumdog all over again. Or About Schmidt, another Payne movie. And it’s not that it isn’t good, it’s just that this low-key picture is so incredibly low-key that it’s sort of hard to go meet or, ahem, descend to its level.

The most telling, pointed line is probably where Clooney’s character Matt King compares his family to an archipelago, ‘together but always drifting apart’. So the movie has this tragic undercurrent running through it, which never fully comes to the surface. Things are not well in the house of King, you see. For starters, his wife’s in a coma and is probably not going to make it. And as if to heighten the resentment you would feel for a loved one putting you through such an ordeal, he also has to find out that she was having an affair. More stuff that you can’t really deal with. But the characters all give it a fair go as they thrash it out with the comatose mom, her becoming just the weirdest character/prop who just lies there in close-up during conversations.

Clooney, in going for his miserable unfulfilled guy trilogy, is very good as always, but not great. Not Oscar worthy. He can’t be faulted and shows good variation, occasionally displaying even a bit of O Brother’s almost farcical acting, but his performance is much toned down as his character internalises so much of his emotions. S0 you really have to look for the so-called Oscar-winning performance to see it, but I don’t know, some people will call it nuanced.

I guess he perfectly matches the tone of the movie, so lets commend him for that. But I think I was expecting another Up In the Air, where he gives a similar performance. Only there the material really packed more of a punch, whereas Descendants works the stomach without ever going for the knock-out. The stand-out performance actually comes from young Shailene Woodley, who plays his daughter Alex. She gives such a strong, assured performance of a young woman dealing with all that is going on and really impresses.

It’s a thoughtful, sombre movie about what it means to love someone, all contrasted with horrible Hawaiian shirts and the unusual melancholy of its Hawaiian music soundtrack. It’s subtle, complex and definitely has its moments, with also some decent humour creeping in to alleviate some of the heaviness. So, I’m sure it’s very good, but I don’t think I really liked it that much or at all. To its credit, it did make me think to go out and live my life right to avoid King”s mistakes (even though these things happen), and maybe reconsider the time spent watching slow-burning movies that don’t really pay off in the end.

And oh, hey, Matthew Lillard is in it. And he doesn’t screw it up. So kudos to him.


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