Alexander Payne’s The Descendants is destined to be one of the season’s bigger hits. It has a bankable star, a name director, mostly terrific reviews, and is, in fact, a very good movie—without ever quite being a great one. Being that it’s from Payne, moviegoers who think in terms of filmmakers (the basic target audience of the film) have some idea of the kind of film it is: unhurried, a little off-center, humanistic, focused on deeply-flawed characters whose appeal may not be immediately apparent. But The Descendants is a little different in that it’s not as bleak as About Schmidt (2002), nor as specialized as Sideways (2004). It actually has far more in common with his sweet-tempered short film “14e arrondissement” in Paris, Je T’Aime (2006). And, to me, that’s not a bad thing. At the same time, it’s typical Payne—as was the short film—in that life is finally all about where you are, what you’re doing, and with whom you do it.
George Clooney (an almost certain Oscar nomination and a good bet to win) plays Matt King, a Hawaiian real-estate lawyer descended from a long line of Hawaiians with a lineage that includes Hawaiian royalty. It’s through this lineage that he has ended up as trustee of an extremely valuable tract of picture-postcard unspoiled beachfront land on Kauai. Since Matt has always lived off his earnings and not relied on his trust fund, he has no real need or desire to sell the land. The trust is set to expire in a few years, however, and Matt’s rather motley assortment of layabout relatives have plans to sell the land to a developer.
Though it looms over the film and is ultimately central to the story, the land is almost a side issue in terms of the plot. The story is more concerned with the fact that his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), has been in a boating accident that has left her in a coma, which Matt soon learns is not going to change. It’s not a question of whether she’s going to die, but when to honor her living will and let her go. The situation has already been difficult, since it left Matt in charge of 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), a daughter he utterly cannot understand. It also leaves him in charge of her away-at-school 17-year-old sister, Alex (Shailene Woodley), whom he brings home—partly to say goodbye to her mother and partly to help with Scottie.
The problem with this is that Alex—apparently recovering from a drug problem—is not happy about either prospect. This turns out to be due, in part, to the fact that she’s the one family member who knew that Elizabeth had been cheating on Matt. It’s through her that Matt learns of his dying wife’s infidelity—and that sets the film off in another direction with Matt determined to learn the identity of his wife’s lover and confront him. To this end, he starts playing detective with the assistance of Alex—with her seemingly clueless and obnoxious boyfriend, Sid (Nick Krause), in tow. (Sid, however, may not be quite as witless as he seems.) It sounds like a farce comedy, and in some ways it is, but it’s also more than that. One of the movie’s joys is the way the plot keeps complicating itself—in part through characters who defy expectations.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the film is that it takes that hoariest and most tiresome of modern movie cliches—the distracted workaholic dad and husband—and makes it seem fresh. In the hands of Payne, his co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, Clooney and the rest of the cast’s flawless performances, The Descendants becomes a human, believable and quietly moving film. Rated R for language including some sexual references.