George Clooney is barefoot for much of The Descendants, at times when the other actors’ feet are sandaled. I’ll let my one Hawaiian friend comment on the verisimilitude of Alexander Payne’s adaptation of a 2008 novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings: do the white guys really wear flowered shirts and drink Budweiser? Clooney’s expertly tanned ankles symbolize everything that’s wrong with The Descendants: Payne’s habit of using bit of business — foul-mouthed children, the incessant “themed” music piping over the soundtrack, like hearing talking drums while approaching an “African” souvenir stand at Epcot — to substitute for pedestrian camera work and framing and undeveloped writing. This is a director who admitted in 2002 that what got Jack Nicholson to “understand” his grey-faced corporate apparatchik in About Schmidt was figuring out the comb over. What a line! He’s right too: Nicholson’s Schmidt starts and remains a comb over.
The most offensive member of odd-numbered-year Serious Clooney Oscar Bait yet, The Descendants demonstrates how shrewdly Payne has calculated the degree to which his audience will tolerate spiky humor before (in his mind) demanding the chewy maudlin core. The movie’s “conflict” — how Matt King (Clooney) and his daughters accept how their comatose mother must die for being independent and what her father (Robert Forster) calls “tough” — is a ruse. She exists so that Clooney and kids can stick pins into her, or, in Clooney’s case, yell recriminations at her vegetative form like Marlon Brando does to his own corpse bride in Last Tango in Paris. When King learns the name of the real estate agent (Matthew Lillard) who cuckolded him, he hustles the kids and the oldest daughter’s boyfriend on a plane to, I don’t know, confront him or something. To depict a man so angry that he would make public — before his children! — the bedroom politics between him and his wife is a contrivance so unbelievable as to make Megatron’s plans in Transformers 2: Rise of the Fallen a plausible nightmare. We learn nothing about Clooney or his relationship with his children, cousins, and in-laws that the underline-with-lipstick voice-over doesn’t explain.
The movie’s other subplot simmers with more ominous portents. The King family, lords of an undeveloped, idyllic fiefdom in Kauai, are on the verge of relinquishing their claim, the sale of which will make them comfortable enough to keep their country club privileges for the rest of their lives. The voice-over makes it clear that Matt, thanks to prudence, doesn’t need the money. Yet when at a crucial point in the movie he wavers, all I kept thinking was, what about your nieces and nephews, what about your poorer relations dependent on the income from that sale? The Descendants is callous enough to expect the audience to applaud Matt’s altruism and ignore the queasy fact that Clooney and his cousinage are saturnine white guys whose interest in mixed blood and native Hawaiians extends only to patronizing local bars and applauding their house bands. Payne thoughtfully includes an early scene in which a mixed blood mom accuses Matt’s youngest daughter of sending raunchy text messages; the camera lingers on the mom’s ribbons of flesh, the bag of Doritos on the table in front of the schoolgirl. Nine years after About Schmidt and Payne still finds fat women funny (it was okay to laugh at Kathy Bates in the hot tub but not Jack Nicholson, who could have nursed several foals and puppies with those teats). Although the King family has exploited Hawaiians since the nineteenth century, Payne acts like the politics would get in the way of his Coppertoned Terms of Endearment rehash (Clooney and his vegetable wife even get a farewell scene as unconvincing as Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger’s). I wish Edward Said were alive.
So why are critics swooning for this crap? Is praising two-hour sitcoms compensation for sitting through comic book adaptations? The normally estimable A.O. Scott, in a prom invitation disguised as a movie review, writes:
There are times when you laugh or gasp in disbelief at what has just happened — an old man punches a teenager in the face; a young girl utters an outrageous obscenity; Mr. Clooney slips on a pair of boat shoes and runs, like an angry, flightless bird, to a neighbor’s house — and yet every moment of the movie feels utterly and unaffectedly true.
Which makes two of us laughing and crying with disbelief. For reason quite easily fathomable, Clooney has turned into the Teflon Actor: he’s never blamed when a movie goes sour; we’re told, over and over, to concentrate on his star qualities, his confidence. Is it because his wry, rumpled, self-effacing screen presence represents how liberal movie critics most want to see themselves? If in Michael Clayton and (barely) Up in the Air, Clooney’s talent suffered scarcely a blemish, his spongy, tentative, embarrassed work here should frighten us because it represents how Clooney regards himself. George Clooney crying is like watching a Volkswagen pull a trailer.