Directed by Alexander Payne
Brimming with sappy melodrama that never hits home, The Descendants features great performances and enough laughs to keep you thoroughly entertained, despite that lack of emotional attachment.
George Clooney's performance - as strong as it may be - never reaches a level of emotion to help escalate the material to the heart-breaking range that was intended. The tear-jerking scenes were so obvious in their melodrama that I found myself feeling viewing the most touching scenes as being very forced -- lacking heart. Shailene Woodley provides the strongest dramatic moment, giving her an even greater chance at earning herself an Oscar.
The fact that we never see or hear any good things about Clooney's comatose wife only adds to the already established detached nature of the story, and when taking into account her prior conduct - being a complete hooker - it becomes hard for us to view Clooney's loss as anything more than lost baggage. For what is presumably the dramatic center of the movie, it does not make for a very strong one. The lack of a strong dramatic story would have been more forgivable, had the comedic elements of the movie been more comedic. The Descendants instead fits inside that small niche of movies that aren't dramatic enough to be effective dramas, but aren't funny enough to be comedies either.
When compared to Payne's previous efforts 'Sideways' and 'About Schmidt' (a personal favorite of mine), both the comedic and dramatic effect have much less potency. Even just taking into consideration the endings of the three movies, both 'About Schmidt' and 'Sideways' have far more depth of feeling, coming to emotionally satisfying conclusions. The Descendants instead drags on in its final chapter, until it eventually reaches an unsatisfactory conclusion.
Taking all of this into account, Alexander Payne's direction and screenplay, although flawed, are certainly among the best of the year, and though its status as an Oscar front-runner is largely unwarranted, there is still much to enjoy about this movie. The pacing, though slow, is never dull, and the entire cast deliver perfectly strong performances. The less-than-heavenly Hawaiian setting makes for a notably unique backdrop.
It may falter in the dramatic elements and not provide a continual flow of laughter, but there is something inherently enjoyable about The Descendants, and though I'm sure I won't put it down as one of the year's best, I certainly wouldn't discourage anyone from going to see it.