Making a good dramedy, or even black comedy, is not a science. Although, when watching them, one feels that it should be. Balancing out the drama and the comedic timing is often imperfect, but films like Gran Torino get away with it without pushing the audience way because it is not “serious enough”. It ends up being both impactful in an emotional aspect as well as a humorous one. The subject matter is also up for grabs, for as long as there is good writing and better acting, they can get away with murder (see: Fargo). Alexander Payne, whose last film was the critically acclaimed Sideways in 2004 which I have not seen) and before that About Schmidt (which I have seen), likes deadpan, dark humor. Probably a bit darker than even one of the darkest of comedies, Withnail and I. That means his films can often be a hit or a miss with viewers.
Here, Payne tries to balance the nuance of drama and the absurdity of comedy in The Descendants, whose working title could have been “White People Problems Starring George Clooney as a Handsome White People”. It is a family drama, one that begins with Clooney’s wife in the hospital after a water skiing accident and leads into Clooney learning he has been, as in all interesting familial dramas since Shakespeare’s Othello, cuckolded. His journey not only involves confronting the man with whom his wife cheated on, but also telling various family members of his wife’s now terminal condition and that, according to her will, she wants the plug to be pulled. The journey is taken with Clooney, whose character name is Matt King, as well as with his 17 year old daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley), his 10 year old daughter (Amara Miller), and this dopey kid Alex knows Sid (Nick Krause). All the while, King, who is the sole trust owner of 25,000 acres of Hawaiian land that his ancestor had as her dowry, must decide to whom he must sell this humungous plot.
It all goes down in rather dramatic fashion. That, right there, is one of the main problems. Not only is it sometimes terribly melodramatic, there’s barely a hint of comedy in the film. That is not always because it is not in the screenplay, but the comedic timing of both the director as well as the actors is so poor, they can manage to turn something that could have been highly amusing into something middling and unintentionally annoying. There is no balance here. There is no contrast of the dark drama of human life against the absurdity of it manifested as humor, unlike, say, Woody Allen’s ambitious “comedy up against drama” film Crimes and Misdemeanors. Granted, that film is broader in its comedic format, but even the Coen Brothers, who’ve mastered the art of dark comedy, made something insane and dark like Burn After Reading into something hilarious.
Maybe it is because that the two aforementioned directors (or three, depending on who’s counting) are superb screenwriters, legendary for their wit, pathos, and dialogue. The dialogue in this film comes to a screeching halt. It’s almost as if the actors were not only speaking in clichés, which would have been bad enough, but had been taking them directly from Lifetime Movies. Lines as hard hitting like, “You really have no clue, do you?” and “It’s obvious, isn’t it?” and the tender, “I love my family; I love my wife!” pepper the film’s uninteresting yet relentless melodramatic scenario. That being said, the use of voiceover is actually nice. Creating that kind of nuance and introspection that the films of Charlie Kaufman have been able to do, Clooney’s voice over is calm and nice to listen to. But, like all good things, it does not last. It barely takes up 20 minutes of the film, and thus comes off as inconsistent. The voiceover never actually returns. Regardless of it being presented in the present tense, this inconsistency seems kind of lazy.
Clooney’s performance is nuanced enough so that you can see all the stress etched into his face and his eyes. But because one can normally rely on him having some sort of comedic timing, such as in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy, his almost brute unfunniness is a shock and even a bit jarring. You often see him looking down at his shorts to something, contemplating why bad things happen to good people. The problem being, it takes too long for the film to get going for the audience to actually care about his situation. However, his performance, generally speaking, is very good. Just not great.
Shailene Woodley plays an angsty teenager, which is to say, to some extent, playing a character that is completely derivative. Her performance is unoriginal and unenticing. Being a regular on the ABC Family melodrama/teen soap The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Woodley is used to playing this archetype and also well acquainted with the concept of turning on the water works. Again, if only we (or I) cared.
Yes, the film covers a rather dramatic subject matter. But it all seems so trite and lazily done. There is to enough pathos in the film to render it believable or worthy, and it instead comes off as a movie about rich white people problems. With the cinematography being occasionally ostentatious (oh, hey, let’s punctuate each scene transition with pretty Hawaiian landscapes), the acting being pretty lacking with the exception of Clooney, and the dialogue being completely ridiculous, it’s kind of shocking how far off the rails this film went, when it could have been a moving, funny, and intimate portrait of a family going through a tremendous loss with scattered moments of humor. It ended up just being depressing, halfhearted, and lackluster.