A tough, tender, observant, exquisitely nuanced portrait of mixed emotions at their most confounding and profound form.
In the Oscar-buzzed film of “The Descendants,” Alexander Payne turns his “Sideways” eye on Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel about family dysfunction in Hawaii. It’s a lovely, heartfelt character study of common, everyday people trapped on the horns of an uncommon but not unheard-of dilemma. Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election) directs his first film in seven years with this charming comedy. Matt King (Clooney), trustee to his extended family’s valuable plot of picturesque territory in Hawaii that’s been passed down through generations, is all at sea after his wife falls into a coma following a boating accident. Having to take more direct responsibility for his two precocious daughters whilst also juggling the responsibility of brokering the sale of the land to keep his oddball relatives happy, the waters are muddied further with the discovery of his spouse’s long-term affair.
There’s a deceptive breeziness to “The Descendants,” a sense of ease at even the most uneasy times. It probably has to do with all the Hawaiian shirts, a lot to do with George Clooney’s naturally amiable persona, and mostly to do with director Alexander Payne, who’s unique comic-tragic point of view has been missing from theaters since 2004’s “Sideways.” Somehow Payne, who adapted Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel along with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, transforms a story of death, betrayal, potential environmental rape and family dysfunction into an entertaining film that also manages to be emotionally revealing.
Director Payne balances all these elements with his typical odd and oblique grace, and the story is moved along by a number of oddball characters. Payne stirs all this into a rich, wistful brew. “Descendants” has a wake, sad family get togethers and family confrontations and hopeless moments in which the only thing Matt has to cling to are thoughts of revenge on the guy his wife was cheating with, a man he’s determined to stalk.
Woodley, of “The Secret Life of An American Teenager,” beautifully gets across the child who has to take on an adult role but is nowhere near up to the task, despite her rude bravado. Nick Krause is agreeably goofy as her tag-along pal Sid, who has a gift for saying the wrong thing, especially in front of Alex’s grumpy grandpa (Robert Forster, terrific). Also notable are Beau Bridges, as a laid-back floral-shirt wearing cousin whose slouch says “surfer” but who has scary business-face side, And the always wonderful Judy Greer brings a subtle sub-surface hurt to the wife of the “other man” in Matt’s wife’s life.
As far as Clooney’s performance is concerned, his character of Matt King had to play the role of a competent but confused father, a man whose value system seems sound (he’s frugal, not spending his inherited wealth) until others question those values. It’s a tricky performance, conveying heartbreak and fury, poignancy and pragmatism. To me it’s one of his best works ever.
Despite of all these incredible performances by the actors, at times, director Alexander Payne stumbles and takes us out of this engaging but slight tale. Early on, a stranger blurts out all the back story on the land deal, the media attention it has earned and native-born Hawaiians’ attitudes about it, a scene that screams “EXPOSITION.” The stalking of the wife’s lover seems like strained invention and Sid is a simple plot device. We’re all but waiting for this unschooled dolt to utter some profound insight, the way plot devices inevitably do.
But “The Descendants,” like the Napa Valley-set “Sideways” and the Nebraskan odyssey “About Schmidt,” lets Payne show us the Other America and the Other Americans — little lives caught up in small but epic problems far away from the La La Land of Hollywood hype, sex and violence. In his hands, Hawaii seems a lot more than sun, surf, hula skirts and umbrella drinks and the people there as universal as anyone who works, loves, loses and struggles, united or not, in anywhere around the world.
Though lacking the acid bite of his best work, there’s certainly enough wit and eccentricity to draw favourable comparisons, and by eschewing dreary sentimentality Payne elicits genuine warmth for his film’s protagonists. Clooney is excellent as the frustrated and befuddled Matt, and Shailene Woodley, as his embittered eldest, Alex, provides one of the most impressive breakthrough performances in years. Moving, thoughtful and frequently hilarious, it’s good to have Payne back.
Ratings: * * * */5