"The Descendants," the latest film by Alexander Payne, is an indie film in only the loosest sense of the term. The movie was released by Fox Searchlight, a subsidiary of 20th Century Fox, and its headlining actor is one of the biggest movie stars in the world: George Clooney. Hollywood used to crank out movies like "The Descendants" in spades — movies about grown-up problems geared to grownups. These days, though, studios realized that there are a greater profit margin in flicks about superheroes and sparkly vampires, making movies like "The Descendants" something of an endangered species.
Payne's first movie, "Citizen Ruth," is a lacerating look at this nation's rancorous abortion debate that's sure to offend advocates of either side. While tweaking both abortion-rights and antiabortion activists, he never turns the movie's wildly irresponsible, utter amoral main character, Ruth, into a stock caricature. Over the years, Payne has lost some of his acerbic sting, but his eye for human foibles has grown more astute. In his last movie, the Oscar-winning road movie "Sideways," two middle-aged buddies go on a wine-soaked weekend in California's Santa Ynes valley. The movie pulls off a rare feat: It's both very funny and genuinely moving.
In "The Descendants," Matt King (Clooney) is a typical character for Payne: a middle-aged guy who finds himself disappointed by the direction of his life. He was, by his own account, an inattentive husband and "a backup parent, the understudy." He's also a descendant from Hawaiian royalty, who, along with his cousins -- a crew of paunchy, aging guys in loud shirts and sandals -- must decide the fate of their inheritance, a massive tract of gorgeous virgin land on the island of Kauai. It's a matter of great interest with his fellow Hawaiians, but he has more pressing matters to deal with. King learns that his wife is in a coma following a boating accident. The doctors inform him at the beginning of the film that he will be a widower in a matter of days. On the heels of that, he learns from his sulking teenage daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley, who gives a starmaking performance) that his comatose wife was having an affair. He struggles to come to terms with her passing and her infidelity while keeping what's left of his family together.
In the hands of a less-talented director, this story could very easily descend into mawkishness. Though his biting wit has been tempered here, Payne's touch has never been as light or as sure. Clooney's character is endlessly sympathetic, though with the exception of one very Oscar-friendly scene, he never plays for pathos. Though perhaps not Payne's best movie -- that would be "Election" or "Sideways" -- it's still one of the better films of the year and definitely a good choice if you're not in the mood to watch a flick about sparkly vampires.
Watch the trailer for 'The Descendants':