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Did anyone ever look less Hawaiian than the dapper and poised George Clooney? It serves his Descendants character Matt King well: Those constitutionally ill-fitting loud prints, pleated shorts, and boat shoes embody how out of touch Matt has become as a husband and father. A work-obsessed attorney and land baron, he's pushed out at the film's beginning from his self-described role of the "backup parent" when a speedboat accident puts his wife, Liz, in a coma.
Matt is surrounded by volatile women. Ten-year-old Scottie (Miller) has taken to texting cruel barbs at a classmate, and she’s also fond of flipping the bird with an exquisitely matched scowl. Seventeen-year-old Alex (Woodley) has been shipped off to boarding school to deal with drug issues; when Scotty and Matt go to retrieve her, she's rowdily drunk and full of four-letter words about her mom. Of Liz – whom we see only comatose and, briefly, at the film's beginning, beaming in close-up during a waterskiing race – we're told she liked motorcycles and hard drinking. As Matt wonders in voiceover: "What is it that makes the women in my life want to destroy themselves?"
Voiceover opens the film and pops up occasionally, sometimes to describe the depths of the family's dysfunction. What we're told and what we're shown by director and co-writer Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt) don't always square: The girls seem more precociously rebellious than tyrannical – OK, so Alex has a habit of calling people twats – and Matt, who is publicly roasted for his failures as a family man, is never seen as anything less than a competent and loving caretaker.
That voiceover is meant to invite us in, to bring us closer to Matt by sharing his innermost thoughts. Instead, it pulls us out of the movie before it's even begun. (Who is he addressing? The audience? Now his wife? And to what purpose, save conveying large swaths of exposition?) Payne and co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (working from Kaui Hart Hemmings' source novel) have produced no end of dialogue that is clever and thoughtful and peppered with arresting one-liners. Problem is, arresting is the enemy of rhythmic, and the film can't catch a flow with all that cleverness waving for attention.
It isn’t quite peacocking – more like a teacher’s pet-like compulsion for acknowledgement – and it bleeds into Payne's stylistic choices, too, as when he directs Clooney toward bug-eyed overacting during a bit of surveillance behind a hedge or when his actors so obviously are hitting a mark in order to facilitate a certain framing or slow zoom. Even the scene transitions – dissolves, a side wipe – regularly jerk the viewer out of that delicate headspace required to buy into the truthfulness of a film. The Descendants is beautifully shot (by Phedon Papamichael) and compellingly performed, especially by its young stars, and it has moments of startling tenderness. If only it didn’t feel phony to its bones.