It’s almost always interesting to watch when popular actors take roles that stray from their norm. George Clooney is the latest A-lister to do this in his new film The Descendants. Instead of the ultra-charming, successful character Clooney has been known for portraying, he’s a sad-sack husband of a coma-ridden wife. Unfortunately, Clooney never emotionally connects to the character as needed, and the result is a half-hearted, almost dull film.
Matt King (Clooney) has a lot on his mind, not the least of which is his aforementioned wife. He also has two daughters, both hellions in their own right, and moral convictions concerning a multi-million dollar real estate deal that he is in charge of. Things start to unravel further once Matt learns of his wife’s infidelity, turning his life into a question of what matters in the end.
Throughout the first fifteen minutes of the film, Clooney delivers a voice-over track that is high on the list of his worst performances. Almost as though he is reading a book review in front of an English class, Clooney puts absolutely no emotion into the read. That would be perfectly fine if the film were about a man who has trouble emoting; the problem is that The Descendants is anything but. Matt cries. Matt shouts. Matt laughs. Matt obviously feels emotion, unlike the audience while listening to Clooney’s voice-over.
Not everything about The Descendants is bad, though most of it is bland. Clooney’s on-screen performance is spent mostly moping around, albeit understandably so, being that his wife is knocking on death’s door. While the audience will understand his motivation, it doesn’t make for an interesting viewing experience. Matt’s internal battle with selling his family’s inherited land takes a really long time to go anywhere, and once it finally reaches its conclusion, it will come as a surprise to absolutely no one in the audience.
The end of the film feels as though there is a scene missing. The story, though mostly about Matt and his kids, also is about Matt and his wife. There’s not enough closure there, emotionally, which is disappointing.
It’s notoriously difficult to get a good performance out of young actors, and the actress playing Matt’s daughter Scottie gives an uneven one. Sometimes, like when she is told of her mother’s dire condition, she’s great. Other times, like when she curses or misbehaves in any way, she’s completely unbelievable.
The only stand-outs in the film are Shailene Woodley and Nick Krause, two young actors with bright futures ahead of them. Woodley plays Clooney’s older daughter, Alex, and she is great while interacting with the rest of the cast. Her emotions bounce off Clooney in such a way that makes him give a better performance in every scene she’s in.
Krause gets the part of Alex’s surfer, pothead boyfriend. In a role that isn’t unlike Ashton Kutcher’s character Kelso in That 70s Show, Krause’s character, Sid, brings levity to the otherwise bleak film. The scene in which Sid shares a late-night, heart-to-heart with Matt is one of the best in The Descendants.
Director Alexander Payne has been a critical darling throughout his career. Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways all received rave reviews, and even a few Oscar nominations. All three of those films are better than his latest work. Like Matt’s wife, The Descendants seems almost lifeless.
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