Falling Over Sideways: My review of Alexander Payne’s The Descendants

I’m reading a great book on screenwriting at the moment. It’s called Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect by Claudia Johnson. One of its main theses is that good (short) stories are patterns of life-changing discoveries that provide momentum to the narrative, and also form one of the writer’s primary tools for connecting with his/her audience. Syd Field expressed a similar idea through his concept of narrative plot points that hook the audience into feature-length stories. I suppose because it’s all fresh in my head, I paid particular attention to this as I watched the latest film by Alexander Payne, The Descendants.

True enough the plot of The Descendants can be mapped out through the discoveries its main character makes during the film. The story begins with Matt King, a wealthy Hawaiian land-baron, watching over his comatose wife (Elizabeth). {SPOILER ALERT: Warning the numbered list below reveals key elements of plot which you may want to skip if you haven’t already seen the film.} During the course of the film, he discovers that –

  1. His youngest daughter, Scottie, is developing unusual ways of coping with the situation and has submitted pictures of the comatose Elizabeth as her school art project;
  2. Elizabeth’s coma is permanent and that she wanted her life support to be turned off in those circumstances;
  3. He needs the help of his rebellious eldest daughter, Alexandra, but she is still angry at Elizabeth for something that happened over Christmas;
  4. Elizabeth cheated on him;
  5. Their close friends knew about it and said nothing;
  6. The man’s name is Brian Speers;
  7. Alexandra’s boyfriend Sid will be accompanying them on their mission to tell family, friends and Brian that Elizabeth’s life support will be turned off;
  8. Elizabeth’s father blames Matt and Alexandra for his daughter’s fate;
  9. Brian is an estate agent and is holiday on the same island where Matt King’s family estate is located;
  10. Sid, who at first came across as an insensitive moron, is more complicated and sensitive than he thought;
  11. Brian is on holiday with his wife and two children;
  12. Brian knows Matt’s cousin Hugh, and is staying at Hugh’s cottage;
  13. Brian is involved in the deal to buy up Matt’s family estate, which Matt and his family are days away from concluding;
  14. Brian was not in love with Elizabeth;
  15. He owes it to his ancestors and his descendants to preserve a piece of paradise on the islands by not signing away the estate;
  16. Brian has told his wife about the affair;
  17. Despite his conflicted feelings, he really did love his wife after all.
The plot points are all there. The story is tight, well-crafted and presents really good dramatic material. Yet somehow it didn’t connect with me. I think this is down to fundamental flaws in the script and direction, which just goes to show how badly aligned my tastes are with those of Academy members who awarded this film Best Adapted Screenplay and honoured its director and the film itself with nominations.
The first flaw is the poor way in which the screenwriters handle exposition in the voice over and far too many flat scenes with really on-the-nose dialogue. Admittedly this is used for ironic effect in certain scenes, e.g. where Matt confronts his best friends Kai and Mark Mitchell about the identity of wife’s lover, and Mark says: “This is a very unusual and dramatic situation.” Or later in the same scene, when he Matt says: “That was intense Matt.” By and large though, this is passed off as straight, unironic passages with the result that scenes which should (as they say) “pop”, simply fizz away quietly. The actors have little depth to work with and convey their thoughts with words. A classic example of this comes towards the end of the movie, where an extraordinarily accomplished actor like George Clooney (who plays Matt) is made to say the words “I guess that’s it then” as he scatters his wife’s ashes to sea.
This spoon-feeding of the audience also makes it way into the way the director and his key collaborators mishandled camera movement and editing at key moments in the film. After Matt invites Elizabeth’s close friends to a party and tells them she only has days left to live (one of the better scenes in the film), he is shown collapsing to his knees after the last guests have driven off, the camera slowly tracks in to a close up of Clooney’s face to emphasise his emotional state. It’s not that the shot selection was wrong in that case – it’s just that the camera movement deliberately draws your attention to what the director wants you to feel in that situation, rather than subtly achieving the same effect through a cut. But as the example of the “scattering ashes scene” shows, even the cuts lacked subtly at critical points.
In that scene, after seeing Alexandra and Scottie perform the ritual through a sequence of head and hand close shots, we cut to a bird’s eye (i.e. top-down) close-up of the ashes, to a reverse shot of Matt (presumably from Elizabeth’s ashes point of view), to a long shot of Matt pouring the ashes out to sea, which is followed by a medium close shot of the ashes disappearing into the ocean. This was all just too obvious for me. I don’t normally have this problem when a filmmaker has mastered their craft, which is why I think I am so disappointed. After all, this is the creative force behind the indisputable classics Sideways and About Schmidt, and someone I recently ranked as one of American cinema’s best contemporary writer-directors.
The film is not all bad. Its key theme of families as connected islands is something I personally resonated with. The startling repetition of shots of the comatose Elizabeth came gave scenes a much needed edge, and there were some funny moments courtesy of Alexandra’s boyfriend, Sid, and of course Clooney running down suburban streets in flip-flops. My favourite moment, however, was the closing shot in which the family drift off in front of the television as they watch a segment from March of the Penguins in which Morgan Freeman’s narration describes how Antarctica was one a tropical paradise before the continents drifted and everything froze over. A perfect summation of the film’s main theme, and an example of the intelligent and wonderfully poetic flourishes Payne is capable of. Too bad that most of the rest of the film fell flat. If it had half the awkwardness, restraint and depth of Sideways, this film would have stood its ground in Payne’s excellent body of work to date. It doesn’t come close, and for that reason I have to give it 3/5 (Average).
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About Darwin Franks

Filmmaker, Cinephile, Writer, Athiest, Civil Servant

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