The Descendants

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Someone is about to get punched.

This is the worst movie Alexander Payne has ever done. And I liked it.

Payne can now be considered one of the best filmmakers around, even with this low-key movie that could’ve been better.

He wrote and directed Election, one of the best teen comedies ever (a retired teacher that worked over 30 years at Point Loma High, told me no movie has ever captured the high school experience as well as that film).

Payne gave us Sideways, easily the best wine drinking, buddy picture ever done.

And Jack Nicholson/Kathy Bates made a splash in the low-key but thought provoking About Schmidt, which had a guy dealing with the boredom of retirement.

In Payne’s latest, it’s not really a midlife-crisis that George Clooney is going through. He’s a lawyer that seems to have put his kids and marriage on the back burner, and as the marriage is reaching the breaking point, his wife ends up in a coma from a water skiing accident. I couldn’t help wonder what actress Patricia Hastie felt when she got the script for this – knowing she’d be in an Alexander Payne movie, playing Clooney’s wife – only to have her agent say “Don’t get too excited. You’re in a coma, and don’t have a lot to do.”

Remember, Kevin Costner’s first film was the dead guy in The Big Chill. His flashback scenes were cut out and only his hand in the casket made the final cut.

The cast of The Descendants is outstanding. Former model Shailene Woodley shows she has acting chops, as the rebellious daughter who’s away at boarding school.

Beau Bridges, who I haven’t seen in years, pops up as the lazy cousin that wants to drink beers at the local watering hole. He’s eagerly awaiting his big pay day. You see, they’re all descendants of Hawaiian royalty, going all the way back to King Kamehameha.

Bridges sports long hair and seems to be channeling his dude brother Jeff.

Robert Forster has almost no hair. I remember enjoying his comeback in Jackie Brown years ago – and he’s wonderful as Clooney’s curmudgeon father-in-law.  Some of the most powerful scenes show his anger and grief towards the state of his daughter; and also how Clooney is smart enough to show restraint and not argue with him.

It does feel a bit manipulative at times, and I expected a bit more from Payne in that regard.

I thought it was great to show Woodley as the one so angry about her moms affair, and to make Clooney appear just a bit hurt by it.

I thought it would have been a more interesting picture if the wife had an affair that we could possibly justify. Instead, when we meet the slimeball, it just makes us more sympathetic to Clooney. I would’ve preferred having conflicting emotions about infidelity. Perhaps the only movie that ever did that for me was The Sixth Sense. We think Bruce Willis’ wife is having an affair but we see he’s never home, missing anniversaries, spending more time with a boy than his wife, etc.

Clooney told us right from the beginning, in voice-over, that he wasn’t the perfect husband. Yet we spend the rest of the movie rooting for him.

I was bothered by the scene that showed Forster punching the dopey boyfriend of Woodley, because it’s one of the few scenes you didn’t see coming down Broadway; unless, of course, you saw one of the many commercials or trailers for this film which gave it away. The studio made sure this would look like some wacky comedy starring George Clooney. They’re not stupid – the movie wouldn’t sell if people knew how slow it was, or how many more comedic moments were needed.

I thought it was interesting that we didn’t see the touristy parts of Hawaii. In fact, the only hula dancer you see is plastic, swaying on the dashboard of a car.

The cinematography is great, but the Hawaiian music (Gaby Pahinui, Keola Beamer, Ray Kane) feels a bit forced.

I’ve never thought Clooney deserved an Oscar nomination in anything, but I wouldn’t have a problem with him snagging one for this.

The movie was clumsy at times, and as critic J. Hoberman of the Village Voice said, “The pathos is as unearned as the protagonist is privileged.”

It gets 3 ½ stars out of 5.