I don’t think co-writer/director Alexander Payne always had disdain for women. Citizen Ruth and Election didn’t exactly have lovable women at their core, but they were well-rounded, flawed, complex women who were doing what they felt they had to do to survive. In those intervening years – he also directed About Schmidt and won an Oscar for Sideways – something must have happened (perhaps his divorce?) because The Descendants is an exercise in why women are such horrible, despicable shrews. When this film isn’t demonising its female characters for daring to be unhappy in their marriage, it’s condescending them for showing too much emotion and even berating them for drinking alcohol. By the time the film’s conclusion rolls about and the rightful masculine presence has been reinstated on this broken family, The Descendants has long – ahem – descended into an irredeemably dire affair.
Set in Hawaii, The Descendants stars George Clooney (The American) as Matt King, a married father who discovers his comatose wife was having an affair with a local real estate kingpin, Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard, Scream). Matt and his two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) then venture to confront Brian – it’s a father daughter bonding experience, I guess. They even watch March of the Penguins because, you see, male penguins take care of the chicks while the female penguin goes gallivanting out in the ocean.
Even if the film’s sexual politics weren’t disheartening – I haven’t even mentioned the scene where Clooney hurls abuse at his comatose wife! – then the flat direction, broadly simplistic dialogue and drivel soundtrack would condemn it for the trash heap. In between limp song selections from a generic Greatest Hits of Calypso compilation album, the screenplay by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash is extolling bon mots of wisdom like “what is it that makes the women in my life destroy themselves?” You’re a bad husband and father, perhaps? All the depth of a wading pool right there that we’re somehow meant to excuse due to Clooney’s grizzled performance. His choppy narration has all the energy of a student reading a school textbook in class and Clooney’s performance appears at odds with the mild comedic material, never finding a tone that suits.
The performances of Woodley and Judy Greer (27 Dresses) are particularly fine, but the screenplay sends their characters into some truly bizarre territory. 2011 saw some fascinating portrayals of women – Melancholia and Bridesmaids for instance – but the lazy portraits here are both off-putting and offensive. Bland platitudes on the importance of family are at odds with the idea of patriarchal superiority that the screenplay supports, and its fascination with privileged wealth feels curiously out of touch. A seriously glum movie going experience, The Descendants is a hollow, lifeless shell of a film.
The Descendants is released in Australia on January 12th
Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Matthew Lillard, Beau Bridges, Judy Greer, Patricia Hastie, Amara Miller, Nick Krause and Robert Forster