Writer/director Alexander Payne seems hell-bent on becoming the Neil Simon of Hollywood with this comedy-drama about infidelity, death and real estate trusts in the 50th state. Featuring a fine cast, the natural beauty of Hawaii and a plethora of pre-Oscar hype, Descendants promises to deliver Payne another box-office success to rival Sideways, its predecessor. Both strive hard for a winsome take on contemporary social mores…and are collectively about as substantive as a pair of Twinkies.
In this outing, the director’s blessed with the presence of George Clooney, who plays Matt King, cuckolded husband of Elizabeth, his hospitalized & comatose wife. He’s also the beleaguered father of two rebellious daughters and controller of a significant piece of real estate held in trust for various members of the King family who anxiously await the end of Matt’s tenure as trustee when the property can be sold to developers. That outcome troubles Matt because he harbors the suspicion that the good citizens of Hawaii would be better off if the property were to remain in something close to public domain.
Unfortunately, he can’t find the time to carefully parse that issue; he’s too busy (1) trying to reconcile with Alexandra, (Shailene Woodley) his foul-mouthed teenage daughter while (2) attempting to determine the identity of the guy with whom his wife’s been sleeping. That latter piece of domestic detective work requires some island-hopping as Alexandra and Matt trace mom’s boyfriend to a family vacation with his unsuspecting wife and kids, which sets up a wordy confrontation climaxed by an invitation to the adulterer to visit Elizabeth in the hospital before she rides that big surfboard into the great beyond….
Payne and his co-screenwriters do capture some of the laid back style of the islands and Clooney’s skills and quiet charm generate a lot more sympathy for his character than the actor has any right to expect. Woodley delivers some clever put-downs without becoming likable in the process and the always reliable Robert Forster plays Elizabeth’s father with the bare-knuckled conviction that anything wrong with his only daughter’s marriage is entirely Matt’s fault. Small wonder the final reel is devoted to an inexplicable real estate decision, followed by a gooey burial at sea and a shared a bowl of popcorn in front of a T.V. set which represents the solidification of a once-fractured family, brought together by shared tragedy.
I don’t begrudge Payne his commercial success, but the amount of critical praise he’s garnered is nearly as pretentious as the clichés he manages to pass off as serious social commentary. Despite Clooney’s attractive winsomeness and the amusing one-liners the script contains, the motivations of these characters are too shallow to be taken seriously and what purports to be a painfully touching study of a modern family turns out to be an opaque exercise in screenwriting 101. You won’t be moved by the King family’s plight…and you certainly won’t remember it much longer than the time it takes to get to your car in the theater parking lot.
The Verdict? Fluffly, feel-good sit-com fare, disguised as an insightful comedy/drama. If you feel compelled to see it, wait for the DVD.
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