His first movie in since Sideways (2007), writer-director Alexander Payne’s The Descendants (based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings) is also perhaps his best movie to date. That’s saying a lot, considering the rest of his filmography includes Citizen Ruth (1996), Election (1999), and About Schmidt (2002). It’s delicate blend of drama and comedy that sidesteps shmaltz and melodrama.
George Clooney stars at Matt King, a hapless though prosperous attorney born and raised on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. He’s the first to admit (via opening voiceover) that he owes his station in life to chance, having been born into a family that begin in the 1860s with the marriage of a white missionary and Hawaiian princess descended from King Kamehameha. As such, he is the trustee of 25,000 acres of pristine, undeveloped land.
He’s in the middle of haggling with his cousins over whether or not to sell the land and to whom when his wife is left comatose by a boating accident. The preoccupied is Matt forced to start being a parent to his 10- and 17-year-old daughters, Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley); on top of that, soon after his wife’s condition takes a turn for the worse, Matt learns she’d recently been having an affair.
It’s a set of storylines that Payne weaves together neatly and without pretense, crafting a serious story tempered with a sense of humor, about a bunch of imperfect people struggling through a disastrous situation. It’s the sort of most material that lesser hacks turn into a either two-box-of-Kleenex tearjerker or a smarmy piece of feel-good product. Payne is smarter and more talented than, and takes the audience into complicated place while respecting its intelligence.
Matt is the kind of late-blooming lost soul of a man that Payne so deftly explored in Sideways and About Schmidt, and Clooney plays him to near perfection. Shoulders slumped, reading glasses perched on his nose, and grey hair mussed, he channels a certain vulnerability and angst capped with a slight touch of slapstick, he maintains Matt as a human being one can identify with.