Like all of Alexander Payne’s films, “The Descendants” runs the emotional gamut from broad comedy to tragedy, with a bittersweet pungency the default mood. And like them it sidesteps the pitfalls of both soap opera and sitcom that might well have caused other directors to stumble.
The script, sensitively crafted by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, is one more noteworthy for emotional than narrative complexity. Matt King (George Clooney) is a lawyer who also serves as the executor of vast family holdings in Hawaii, inherited from early settlers there, which he and his relatives are currently in negotiations to sell to one of two bidders. His life is suddenly shaken when his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is injured in a water-skiing accident and put into a coma from which she might well not recover. That makes Matt, who’s until now been a typically “backup parent” (to use his phrase), must become chief caretaker to daughters Alexandra King (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller).
That’s somewhat difficult in the case of younger Alexandra, whose conduct toward fellow students in elementary school has begun to cause a stir, but it’s much more so with Alexandra, who’s off at boarding school and showing a rebellious streak. When Matt and Scottie go off to the campus and bring her home, her stridency seems out of proportion even in the present circumstances until she reveals that she’s furious with Elizabeth because she’d discovered, shortly before the accident, that her mother was cheating on Mike. That throws him for a loop and sends the three, along with Alexandra’s new pal Sid (Nick Krause), on a search for the man, not merely to find out who he is but to let him know that Elizabeth’s condition is probably terminal and that the doctors are recommending that the respirator be unplugged.
“The Descendants” plays Mike and his daughters’ plight against the broader historical context of the disposition of the King family’s land holdings, which at present are in pristine condition but are scheduled for development whichever seller they choose. Both story thus have to do with inheritance—not merely of property but of shared memories and experiences. But the two are further linked when Elizabeth’s lover turns out to be Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), a realtor who’s related to one of the bidders. And Mike and Alexandra succeed in locating him, his wife Julie (Judy Greer) and their children at their vacation getaway, a meeting that is tense and doesn’t turn contentious, but makes for a touching sequence at the close.
The wonderful thing about Payne’s film is the dexterity with which it juggles drama and comedy, sometimes turning from one to the other with a breathtaking speed. And joined with that is its depth of characterization. One sees that clearly in Mike, whom Clooney plays with nuance and intensity in both comic and dramatic modes, and Alexandra, whose mixture of adolescent behavior and maturity Woodley captures well. But it’s apparent in secondary characters as well. Sid, who at first glance appears a bubble-headed slacker, grows in our minds as the film proceeds. Payne gives Krause a simply but beautifully written scene that changes our impression of him instantly, and by the close he’s emerged as not just a sympathetic figure but quite an intelligent and helpful one. The same can be said of Greer’s Judy, an initially one-dimensional character who toward the close gets considerably stronger shading. Even Robert Forster, as Elizabeth’s brusque, angry father, has the opportunity to show a softer side before the film ends, and Lillard’s philanderer isn’t just a simple villain.
Payne and his cinematographer Phedon Papamichael employ the stunning locations expertly to complement visually Mike’s establishing observation that while Hawaii might seem a perfect paradise to outsiders, neither its past nor the way most of its people live today could remotely be thought of in those terms. As always, “The Descendants” concludes, what’s important is family, which survives tragedies both historical and personal—while finding humor in even the most trying and tragic situations.
Alexander Payne hasn’t made all that many films. This is, in fact, his first since “Sideways” (2004)—a near-Kubrickian hiatus. But all of them, from “Citizen Ruth” (1996) on through “Election” (1999) and “About Schmidt” (2002) have been superb, and “The Descendants” joins them. In its mixture of wit, warmth, poignancy and perceptiveness, it’s a worthy addition to Payne’s remarkable string of winners.