“The Descendants” is Alexander Payne’s first feature movie since “Sideways,” his unlikely hit of 2004. This one, starring George Clooney, arrives with a good deal more fanfare, and it is probably going to earn a couple of Oscar nominations. Both films resist easy categorization, though both have the plot arc of a comedy. The characters pass through some distinctly non-humorous travails, punctuated by laugh lines. When they arrive at a kind of reconciliation at film’s end, they have been scarred by the preceding events, which have revealed some unpleasant truths about themselves and the people they love.
Clooney is cast against type here, discarding the glib, smooth trappings of, say, Danny Ocean for the frequently overmatched, cuckolded Matthew King, a lawyer and largely absentee father of two young girls. Matt gets walked on numerous times, not least by his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), who has had an affair with a local real estate agent (Matthew Lillard). But shortly after the story opens, Liz has had a boating accident that leaves her comatose, without hope of recovery. Only then does older daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) reveal to her father that her mother had been cheating on him, inciting the anger that has separated her from Liz and caused her to lose what respect she had for Matt.
Indeed, anger gets vented throughout the movie: at Liz, at Matt, at Alex, at many of their friends, and, finally, at Liz’s cowardly, greedy lover. Much of it is aimed at family members—parents, in-laws, and siblings—revealing the explosive dysfunctions that have been ticking along waiting to detonate. Often, the scenes where the anger erupts contain humor, though our laughter is uneasy as it always comes at someone’s expense.
The other major problem Matt must wrestle with is the upcoming sale of a huge piece of very desirable land on Kauai, a tract that has been in his family for generations and which is now worth a fortune. Since Honolulu lawyer Matt has sole authority to decide whether to sell and to whom, his impecunious relatives have been badgering him for some time, urging to sell to developers before the trust governing its disposition runs out. Payne subtly plays off the beauty of the paradisiacal land against the rather grubby civilized environs, and pictures of Matt’s ancestors quietly remind him of his duty as a descendant himself, along with his place in the family chain.
If anything, I’d quibble with Payne’s failure to bind the two plots together clearly enough to make the theme of familial responsibility more compelling. The land sale problem gets established early on and resurfaces at intervals, but the film lacks a defining moment or Big Speech that knits the threads seamlessly. Perhaps such a moment was lost in the adaptation of the novel by Kauai Hart Hemming (who gets a bit part in the movie); on the whole, however, Payne and his fellow screenwriters have crafted a story that, like “Sideways,” continually surprises and pleases and may well get an Oscar nomination.
In any case, audiences will probably not notice the holes, given Clooney’s fine performance and that of a solid supporting cast, particularly those of Woodley and of Nick Krause as Alex’s amiable, socially inept boyfriend, Sid. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael avoids the travelogue version of Hawaii, appropriately for a film about the real troubles underlying an enviable exterior. Similarly, Dondi Bastone’s selection of various types of Hawaiian music complements the setting without becoming corny. (There ain’t a single hula skirt in the movie.)
“The Descendants” is rated “R” almost entirely for language: the numerous F-bombs are entirely fitting for the plot and the characters, however, and I’m guessing adults will figure that out.