by Ryan Hill
It’s been seven years since writer/director Alexander Payne released his most recent film, “Sideways,” arguably his masterpiece, about two men trying to figure out their lives in California wine country. Now, the director of such eccentric comedies as “Election” and “About Schmidt” returns with “The Descendants,” another signature Payne film that comes with a Hawaiian twist.
George Clooney stars as Matt King, a native Hawaiian who’s been spending too much time as executor of 25,000 acres of land and not enough time with his family, much to his chagrin. The film’s title comes from the fact that Matt and his cousins are direct descendants of a Hawaiian woman and a white banker who together owned a massive amount of land, and a lot of developers want to get their hands on the final 25,000 acres.
Matt vows to do better with his family but before he can, his wife is involved in a boating accident that leaves her in a permanent coma, and her living will stipulates that she be taken off life support.
To make a bad situation worse, Matt’s oldest daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) breaks the news that his wife has been having a months-long affair with a real estate agent, who’s the subject of much ridicule and involved in the film’s funniest moments. This revelation leaves Matt in the unenviable position of handling a double whammy of bad news as he’s forced to tell his friends about his wife’s condition while at the same time trying to reconnect with Alexandra and his younger daughter Scottie (Amara Miller). As if that isn’t hard enough, Matt wants to track down his wife’s lover so he can say goodbye to her before she’s gone.
“The Descendants” is signature Payne. Just as in his other films, he knows how to get humor out of even the worst situations, especially when his characters don’t realize they’re being funny. In more sappy hands, this could have been a ridiculously depressing movie, but thankfully Payne’s ironic style is perfect for the subject matter, keeping the proceedings light and heartfelt as long as possible, though he does get a little too caught up with Hawaii’s scenery. The characters may live in Hawaii, but Payne shoots the film like a tourist, inserting so many establishing shots of the Hawaiian landscape that it’s distracting.
And, like his other films, Payne has gotten magnificent performances out of his cast, especially from Clooney and Woodley. Clooney, for all his good looks and charm, excels at playing normal characters at their wit’s end, and “The Descendants” is no exception. He is sure to garner a Best Actor nomination, but the real gem is Woodley, who goes toe-to-toe with Clooney the entire film, emasculating him so much at times that it’s as embarrassing as it is hilarious.
As good a movie as “The Descendants” is, and it’s one of the year’s best, audiences who have been turned off by Payne’s style of filmmaking in the past should probably avoid this film, as it’s pure Payne through and through, with a style and feel that’s similar to his previous films. What sets “The Descendants” apart from other Payne films is that while the film may feel impersonal at times, it’s probably the most heartfelt movie the director has ever made.
Grade: 3 1/2 out of 4
MPAA Rating: R for language including some sexual references
Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures