The Descendants Reviewed by Armond White for CityArts

Thud of Recognition: Payne’s Cynicism Ruins Descendants
By Armond White
“We Didn’t do anything to own this land. It was entrusted to us,” says George Clooney as Matt King, the mixed-race Hawaii-born lawyer in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. King’s pronouncement lands with a thud, exposing Payne’s sentimental cynicism. This serio-comedy about spoiled paradise fits a privileged-class temperament. In King’s case, it is tied to not getting enough of what he wants from life, so he resents how others express their dissatisfaction: His wife’s infidelity, his two daughters’ tantrums and his greedy extended relatives pressuring him to turn family land into a resort.
Discontent would have been a less irritating title because The Descendants implies a preachy rather than sympathetic attitude toward the frustration every American feels at some point. Payne attempts turning it into a grand statement in the same manner as pontificating pundits–as if dissatisfaction were exclusive to the landed gentry, thus profound. Instead of the even-handed detachment of his previous films Election, About Shcmidt and Sideways, The Descendants is full of false modesty, starting with the Hawaii setting for which Payne has no feeling. It’s one thing to depict Nebraska’s flat environment as has been his tendency, but this film’s visual banality reflects poorly on Payne’s skills. He’s unable to transform behavioral perceptions into something numinous as did filmmakers from DeSica and Fellini to Sturges and Altman.
The Descendants looks and feels like television–comfortably “smart” when Payne underscores obvious points about his characters’ relations: A child defending her father to her grandfather, a parent noting his own petulance in his offspring. It’s “quality TV” which explains the excessive acclaim and Clooney’s casting. Although Clooney sheds his usual snark and attempts a genuine characterization, Payne’s facile approach puts the snark back on. King’s voice-over narration smothers social perception. We need to see the irony of modern Hawaii colonized by big, lumbering, self-absorbed, mostly blue-eyed blond white men. Clooney’s brown-eyes cheats ethnic identification yet doesn’t equal the ethnic and class specificity that distinguished Adam Sandler’s characterization in Spanglish or William Hurt’s in The Yellow Handkerchief, two deeply felt studies of contemporary male disgruntlement about family. And neither film had to overstate also being about country.