Evil land developers are the most determined of movie villains. You can’t escape them no matter where you turn, even if you’re watching The Descendants, a prime slice of Oscar bait that’s supposed to be above such tired story devices.
George Clooney stars as Matt, a lawyer, who because his left eyebrow is Hawaiian, has inherited what looks to be the entire island of Kauai. The trustee in charge of selling a massive parcel of pristine land due to a little-known tenet of real estate law that forces families to do so, called The Law of Plot Constructs, Matt needs to decide whether to ruin Hawaii forever or do the right thing. Matt cocks his Hawaiian eyebrow throughout, wondering whether to pave paradise and put up a parking lot.
As far as moral dilemmas go, this is something like deciding whether to pet a baby kitty or blast her in the face with a shotgun.
The land thing is tough, but Matt has even greater problems — females. He’s got two daughters, a rebellious teen, Alex (Shailene Woodley) and a rebel-in-training tween, Scottie (Amara Miller). No explanation is given for the first girl in history to have been named Scottie, but it’s a reasonable assumption, given her age, that Matt must have been a huge Scottie Pippen fan.
Even an unconscious woman, his comatose wife, manages to give Matt problems. Her ultimate silent treatment makes him feel guilty for avoiding her for the loving arms of legal briefs. He takes solace in hanging out with his hateful offspring, who treat him with all of the respect the Problem Child gives the dad in the movie Problem Child, figuring years of neglect is nothing two acts of movie time won’t change.
Matt attempts to solve his female and island problems by taking his brood, as well as Alex’s friend-zoned sidekick, Comic Relief (Nick Krause) along on a madcap adventure of telling friends, loved ones and a male mistress that they’re about to pull the plug on Mommy.
While the movie has its sharp moments, it’s nowhere near the level of mastery usually demonstrated by Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways). Take a Hallmark movie, throw in some swear words and intelligent dialogue and The Descendants is what you get. I kept expecting it to get better, but it just sort of did its thing and called it a day. Clooney is great in the film, but he’s great in pretty much everything, so his performance is a wash.
Being a fan of Rocky movies, I’ve got nothing against predictability, but I was really hoping that since Payne chose to use the evil land developer angle, he’d think of something to do with it.
I won’t spoil things by revealing whether or not Payne was successful. But I will say that I’ve always longed to see the evil land developers get his way in a movie – build his parking lot or shopping mall or garish resort or whatever – just to see how things would shake out.
What I will spoil is that if you’re hoping to see a surefire Oscar sweeper-upper, you’ll need to continue that search after the credits roll. A filmmaker who usually operates in the realm of The Spectaculars has come down with a middling case of The Decents.
Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Matthew Lillard, Nick Krause and Judy Greer. Written by Alexander Payne, Nate Faxon and Jim Rash, based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Directed by Payne. 115 minutes. Rated R.