In The Descendants, director Alexander Payne takes his first baby steps toward becoming fully human. So naturally, he's still a little clumsy about it.
Payne has built a reputation with four films: among them, the shrill and witless Citizen Ruth, the pretentious Sideways, and the lumbering About Schmidt. In these films, he treats his characters cruelly, like puppets on a fraying string, dangling them over his moat of contempt. Only in the superb Election did he achieve an exactly perfect equilibrium between satire and pathos.
He could hardly screw up a tender story like The Descendants, although here and there he tries. There's a 20-something doofus, redeemed by a dying father, who laughs at a woman with Alzheimer's. There's a wife who goes just a little too overboard when she talks to the corpse of her husband's mistress. These are a few of his uniquely Payneful moments.
But at its frequent best, The Descendants gets it right enough. George Clooney stars as Matt King, a great-great-great-grandson of Hawaiian King Kamehameha, and now the trustee of a valuable parcel of untouched land held for generations by his family. His myriad cousins want to sell, and really, so does he. But when he learns that his comatose wife was cheating on him, he confronts her lover (Matthew Lillard, in a nicely subdued performance), who, as it happens, stands to profit when the family sells the land.
"What is it about the women in my life that makes them want to destroy themselves?" Matt asks. Probably the fact that he's a crappy father and an inattentive husband. But don't worry: Amends are on the way, and when Matt and his daughters struggle with their relationship and their grief, some trenchant drama emerges despite an overstuffed plot and Matt's lugubrious musings.
Alex (Shailene Woodley) is a self-aware and increasingly wise bad girl, age 17-something; Scottie (Amara Miller), the 10-year-old, likes to say things that only her sister and the grownups should say. The girls and their father share more than enough raw honesty about love, loss and forgiveness, even though the film has absolutely nothing fresh to say, and comes to the most conventional and unchallenging conclusion imaginable. (Payne is one of three screenwriters who adapted Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel.) But who doesn't like a feel-good dramedy now and then, especially when it's set in paradise?
The two young actresses perform admirably, and so does Clooney, except when he has to cry. That, we discover, is the outer limit of veracity for this attractive actor-cum-movie-star.
Directed by Alexander Payne
Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Matthew Lillard