About a decade ago when director Alexander Payne was making terrific films like "Election" and "About Schmidt," the main knocks on him were that he was condescending to his characters and that he was only good at portraying Midwestern life. With his new film, "The Descendants," he should put those criticisms to rest. Arguably his most emotionally sophisticated work to date, this comedy-drama finds Payne venturing to Hawaii to dissect the tenuous bonds of a family in the wake of tragedy. Its tricky tonal balance isn't always maintained, but this is a rich, warm portrait that sneaks up on you.
Based on a short story by Kaui Hart Hemmings, "The Descendants" focuses on Matt King (George Clooney), a Honolulu lawyer whose wife has fallen into a coma after a jet-ski accident. Their relationship has been troubled for a little while, but beyond his grief and guilt he also has to contend with his two daughters: 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). Matt's never had too much time for his kids, but with his wife's condition deteriorating, he has to become the head of his household. At the same time, he has to make a decision about a large plot of Hawaiian land his family owns and wants to sell. And there's also something about his dying wife Matt didn't know that will finally emerge, forcing him to reevaluate his life.
"The Descendants" is Payne's first feature since 2004's "Sideways," which now seems to have represented a move for Payne away from movies set in Omaha, Nebraska, his hometown. But like his Nebraska films, "The Descendants" immerses itself in its Hawaiian locations, almost immediately setting up an interesting dichotomy: Outsiders think people who live in Hawaii get to have paradise every day, but those living there still endure the same anxiety, doubt and unhappiness as anybody else experiences. This is an important point because it establishes an ongoing theme for "The Descendants," which constantly presents us with one aspect of its characters only to slowly reveal other sides and dimensions to them.
It's fair to say that the film's storyline isn't terribly different from Payne's earlier films. Again, we meet a man in a spiritual crisis forced to look at the mistakes he's made. And in an unfortunate similarity to "About Schmidt," we once again have a too-goofy supporting character (Alexandra's stoner buddy Sid, played by Nick Krause) who can sometimes pull the movie away from its largely realistic tone. But while "The Descendants" stays faithful to Payne's interest in closely observing the fine line between humor and bleakness that defines too much of modern life, the film's deep emotional undertone is perhaps the most successfully sustained of his career.
Just as "The Descendants" feels akin to Payne's earlier work, so too does Clooney's character resemble people he's portrayed in "Michael Clayton" and "Up in the Air": somewhat successful but melancholy men who have reached a personal impasse they can't navigate around. But the new wrinkle in "The Descendants" is how wonderfully ordinary and tired he makes Matt King. This is a middle-aged man who doesn't think in terms of big dreams -- his life is basically his work -- and Clooney turns off the sparkle in his eyes that usually gives his roles a sort of inner light. We don't get the sense that Matt's tragedy brought about this diminished outlook: Sadly for him, it's been there for quite some time. It's a delicate, almost subliminal performance, and it's quite touching.
Much of "The Descendants" is spent with Matt visiting friends and family to share the news about his wife, deciding with his extended family who best to sell their land to, and going off on a fact-finding mission spurned on by the discovery of his wife's dark secret. This is not a particularly riveting film, and its story meanders some, but "The Descendants" is very much about keeping a watchful eye on what's happening below the surface of these characters. (It's also worth mentioning that Payne is for the first time not working with his usual screenwriting partner, Jim Taylor, instead sharing credit with writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, whom he hired to develop the story.) But even if nothing particularly profound happens in "The Descendants," Matt's journey is treated with such grace, care and compassion that it's a special movie nonetheless.
To be honest, I still prefer the Payne of "Election," where he was at his satirical best while still being incredibly insightful into the petty drives and fears that power most human interactions. But from "About Schmidt" on, he's been developing a more mature, thoughtful style that has its own rewards. Which is to say that, yes, he still knows how to make comedies. But he also knows how to make you cry, and the tears in "The Descendants" are richly earned.