"The Descendants" starts slow, muddied by voiceover and unclear intentions. But it soon sneaks up on you, deepening — ripening, really — until it achieves something approaching wisdom. Writer/director Alexander Payne made his name with "Election" (1999), a caustic, almost bloody comedy of bad intentions and narcissism, but he since seems to have mellowed. With "About Schmidt" (2002), "Sideways" (2004), and now "The Descendants," Payne's filmmaking is increasingly rough-hewn and messy, dispensing with the tidiness of a punch line in favor of humor that emerges in fits and starts, as though we're part of the conversation. In the frayed edges and missteps of Payne's new family drama there's undeniable warmth, not forced but earned — in short, a kind of understanding.
Starring George Clooney as Matt King, a father and land heir estranged from both family and history, "The Descendants" sets a desperate situation against Hawaii's idyllic backdrop, a sort of stand-in for all the other surfaces by which we hide our secrets. Such surfaces, it should be added, inevitably melt away: "Paradise," Matt tells us in that opening voiceover, "can go fuck itself." If further evidence were needed that Clooney is one of our most audacious actors, watch as he reveals the bad news to a gathering of family and friends, alternating between gasps of teary-eyed pain and his attempt to maintain a stiff upper lip. He's not just vulnerable. It's like he's been flayed open.
The real accomplishment of "The Descendants," though, is to retain its loose, easy quality without making light of the tragedy at its heart. This delicate balance has become Payne's hallmark — his films from the past decade are run through with pain and disappointment, with missed opportunities and bad vibes, but they are never heavy with undeserved affect. Rather, "The Descendants" marks an understanding of how stories — histories, biographies, imaginative fictions — shape our families, ourselves. Whether an ancestral link dating back to 1860 or an extramarital affair in the now, what Matt tells himself, his daughters, and his cousins defines who he is. It explains why he's so desperate to know the full story. Without it, it seems, he'll cease to exist.
More than "The Artist," the Oscar frontrunner, Payne's film — the only other legitimate contender — presents emotion as complicated, world-worn, human. Don't get me wrong; "The Artist" is a lovely little film. It's a nostalgic blast from the past and impeccably made, the very kind of perfect that "The Descendants" is not. But whereas "The Artist" is a slip of a film, a shiny bauble without much weight, "The Descendants" takes on the heft of life's messy actualities. Though my real favorite of the year, "The Tree of Life," has no chance of winning (if it even snags a nomination), it'd behoove the Academy to stand behind a film so fierce, and funny, and wise as "The Descendants." Compared to "The Artist," it's not the easy choice, but it's the right one.