An essentially dark drama bathed in tropical sunlight, Alexander Payne’s The Descendants almost dares you to take it seriously. Its glib direct-address voice-over narration, its sitcom-like establishing shots, its gaudy aesthetic of Hawaiian shirts and palm trees—none of these gestures announce The Descendants as a film striving for artistic credibility. And that’s just fine—for Payne and for us. As he showed in Election and About Schmidt, especially, Payne works in a defiantly accessible and mainstream register, yet manages to inject an emotional authenticity into his films, so that his characters, while clearly readable as regional and social types, behave in a manner that never feels overly cheapened by the machinations of some puppet master behind the scenes.
We’re not talking about uncompromised realism here, but rather a specifically American brand of filtered truth: like most of his fellow countrymen filmmakers, he prefers identifiable emotional arcs, the relatable comedy of behavior, the reliable drama of redemption. With The Descendants, a story of family and inheritance, Payne ventures into potentially uncomfortable territory and comes out with something reassuring—but that doesn’t make the journey unrewarding. Read Michael Koresky’s review of The Descendants.