As life-or-death dramedy, The Descendants poses several important questions: Why has it taken Alexander Payne seven years to follow up on his critically beloved, box-office boffo, Merlot-squelching Sideways? And what has blunted this gifted writer-director's edge?
Payne topped his debut feature, the provocatively obnoxious abortion comedy Citizen Ruth (1996), with Election (1999), an even sharper exercise in social satire, while the final, impressively bleak movie of his Omaha trilogy, About Schmidt (2002), afforded Jack Nicholson the opportunity for one last committed performance. But moving on to California for Sideways, Payne flirted with the New Age clichés he previously had targeted, and, set even further into the sunset, The Descendants is insistently sincere and positively sudsy.
Payne's earlier movies have been strongly character-driven by richly flawed characters — Reese Witherspoon's monstrous high school striver, Nicholson's thoroughly unpleasant widower, the matched pair of jerks who stumble through Sideways — and Payne's great talent was extracting sympathy even for them. In The Descendants, closely adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings's 2007 novel, it's more a case of bad things happening to good people: Honolulu lawyer Matt King (George Clooney), prosperous scion of a Hawaiian family claiming descent from American missionaries and Polynesian royalty, is humbled by a flurry of body blows. "Paradise can go fuck itself," he declares in voiceover.
A waterskiing mishap has landed Matt's wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), in a coma. His two daughters, the pre-teen Scottie (Amara Miller) and echt teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), are beyond his command, with Alexandra in thrall to a smirking stoner boyfriend (Nick Krause) and in possession of information to further rock her father's world: "Dad, Mom was cheating on you!"
On top of that agony, Matt is unfairly abused by his irascible, hard-nosed father-in-law (Robert Forster), who blames him for Elizabeth's accident. Adding to Matt's responsibilities, as well as providing a corollary to the personal history upended by Elizabeth's infidelity, is the decision he must make, as head of the King family trust, to sell or bequeath a large tract of unspoiled beachfront property — primeval Hawaii.
The two narrative strands entwine when Matt discovers that his wife's lover (Matthew Lillard), a glad-handing realtor, is actually vacationing with his own wife (Judy Greer) and kids adjacent to the Edenic spot where he will be meeting with his clan, most memorably his dissolute cousin (Beau Bridges), to finalize the disposition of their legacy. Cosmic coincidence or crafty plot contrivance?
Despite the large and talented cast that Payne has assembled, The Descendants revolves entirely around its supremely amiable star. But, even with the crutch provided by an insistent voiceover, Clooney's part is underwritten. Moreover, the actor's own blessings are so evident that it's hard to accept him as the beleaguered (if fabulously wealthy) everyman that the movie demands he be.
With supporting characters called upon to react toward him or develop around him as necessary in a given situation, the narrative feels less like an unfolding novel than like an inflated short story. Slowly rolling downhill, The Descendants takes a turn or two but is basically always en route toward the reconciliation that's a foregone conclusion.
Payne's film has been hailed for its enlightened sensitivity and modest humanism; it's being touted for a best picture Oscar because it's the sort of movie that, in resolving a tragically irresolvable situation, encourages audiences and studios to feel good about themselves. Still, save for a reflexive response to the spectacle of "girlfriend in a coma" (ironically, the best scenes are the solos Clooney directs at comatose Hastie — moments that make clear what is otherwise implicit), The Descendants left me cold. The pathos is as unearned as the protagonist's privilege.
Matt, whose main defect is his passivity, starts out begging for sympathy — but his circumstances are far more compelling than he. King Matt is the most charming and least interesting character Payne has ever featured — and despite a gesture or two toward Honolulu's downside, Hawaii still feels like heaven on Earth.