Since so much of The Descendants is about coming to terms with what parts of the past to hold on to and which parts to let go of, here’s a little personal grieving: I miss the Alexander Payne who created some of the funniest, most scathing cinematic satire of the 20th century (Citizen Ruth, Election), then shifted to comedies of discomfort (About Schmidt, Sideways) that were always engaging, but felt like the work of someone trying to be something he really, in his heart, was not.
His adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel follows Matt King (George Clooney), a scion of Hawaiian land wealth who suddenly has bigger problems than deciding how to sell off the last of the inherited family property. His wife, Elizabeth, is comatose as the result of a boating accident, leaving him to care for his daughters, rebellious 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley) and 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller). And just as the reality that Elizabeth may never recover becomes clear, Matt discovers that she had been having an affair.
Payne does a terrific job of preserving the story’s distinctive setting, shooting both suburban Hawaii and its glorious beaches in what feels like a perpetual overcast. At times, he’s almost poetically graceful at knowing when to step away from potentially maudlin moments, allowing the grieving process to become an organic part of the story rather than something exploited for cheap sentiment.
Yet it’s also deeply frustrating when Payne tries to inject a level of ironic distance, whether it comes from the patently unnecessary voice-over during the first few minutes or turning a genuinely anguished emotional release into a cheap laugh. The Descendants offers a glimpse of possible greatness stunted into mere good-ness, all because Payne becomes that guy who has to crack a joke whenever things get uncomfortably real.
George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller