Marked by a strong, soulful performance by George Clooney, simple and economic direction, and a slow and patient gait, “The Descendants” finds filmmaker Alexander Payne working in the familiar, but not derivative, milieu of the adult drama. The film doesn’t reinvent the wheel, and while firmly within Payne’s wheelhouse, we can see the filmmaker inching towards pure drama without dramedy or resorting to the James L. Brooks method of punctuating pain with disarming laughter. That’s not to say “The Descendants” isn’t a dramedy or isn’t funny, as it certainly has its instances of comedic flair that do defuse some painful moments, but overall, one can argue that it’s Payne’s most somber and serious work outside of maybe “About Schmidt.” “The Descendants” is not without some problems either, though most aren’t major dealbreakers aside from familiarity and that’s purely subjective.
Based on the novel of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the film starts out with an unfortunate voiceover that feels as if it exists because the screenwriters (Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) could not devise of a finer way to dispense with the thorny backstory that sets the film’s plot into motion (and the fact of the matter is that’s kind of true). George Clooney stars as Matt King, a lawyer, husband and father of two girls who we meet right in the middle of a major crisis. His adventurous, thrill-chasing wife is in a coma after a speed-boating accident off the coast of Waikiki. The descendant of Hawaiian royalty, and as the sole trustee of his large family’s fortune, Matt’s also been grappling over the past months with the impactful decision of what to do with the remaining parcels of highly-sought after and lucrative tropical beach land they own.
The accident occurs on the precipice of the extended family’s vote of who to sell the land to, with the decision looming of either making a killing with a sale to wealthy Chicagoan investors, or a more modest sum by selling to a Hawaiian real-estate company. As Matt tries to keep his head above water, he also struggles with fatherhood – a duty he’s never been particularly good at, but is now forced to bear the burden of. His precocious 10-year-old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) is a handful, acting out at school post-accident, and the angry and contentious teenager Alexandra (a terrifically good Shailene Woodley) is fetched from her expensive boarding-school in Oahu to help out.
And as Matt wrestles with belatedly trying to be a father and managing his own pain and his daughters’ grief, he’s hit with a bombshell: his wife was having an affair and was possibly in love with another man at the time of the accident. Pummeled emotionally by this discovery, Matt then has to struggle with his anger, anguish, his impending decisions, and the consequences of being a mediocre father. This revelation is what truly kicks the plot into active motion as Matt and his daughters decide if they should go after the guy who made him a cuckold. Sound a bit clichéd in spots and familiar? A man in crisis who is forced to discover who he is, what he’s made and is capable of because of tragedy? Well, that’s because some of it is, but at the end of the day all stories are essentially about characters overcoming adversities, either otherworldly or, in this case, deeply personal.
And this is where the not-especially-unique material of “The Descendants” is elevated by its cast. While there are few stars in the picture (Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Judy Greer and Matthew Lillard all appear in small supporting roles), the principal cast – Clooney, Woodley, Miller and Nick Krause as Sid, Alexandra’s dopey boyfriend – make for a strong quartet to carry the material. In their brief scenes, Robert Forster is also especially good as Clooney’s ill-tempered step-father, as is Beau Bridges as one of the many cousins hoping to profit from the family’s priceless land. While “The Descendants” isn’t Clooney’s best role — some of the hallmarks of his dramatic performances feel a bit habitual at times — ultimately the picture lives and dies with him, and he causes its unhurried breaths rise and fall. Clooney makes the movie better than it is, or as good as it can be, especially in every clutch emotional moment of bereavement – notes he’s not particularly known for, but tenors he sells successfully nonetheless. Perhaps the strongest emotional moments in the film, however, contain the notion of negotiating anger with love and forgiveness, a theme that circles back often to almost every character struggling with their variously loaded issues.
Featuring a plaintive and reflective soundtrack of traditional Hawaiian music, tone is everything to “The Descendants,” and while the almost two-hour movie takes a few moments before it settles into its mature little groove, it’s wise enough to never milk things or abuse the audience’s trust. This writer’s heard some call the tenor treacly, while others describe it muted, but truthfully it mostly lives in that sweet spot in between. A largely subtle affair in retrospect, “The Descendants” is likely not going to win or lose any Alexander Payne fans, though perhaps younger fans of more biting and satirical work like “Citizen Ruth” and “Election” might be tiring of these grave moods. Does Payne have anything new to say? The film’s not necessarily a super fresh approach to examination of the human condition, but on its own terms it is a largely effective and moving one that matters when it counts the most. [B]
A version of this review originally ran during the New York Film Festival in October. “The Descendants” opens up in limited release tomorrow, Wednesday, November 16 and then begins to expand this weekend on Friday, November 18.