On its surface, The Descendants seems like a typical Alexander Payne project (About Schmidt, Sideways). It's another road movie about a sad-hearted man who sometimes behaves ridiculously in search for the truth about himself. It has a rambling family of complicated characters whose motivations aren't easily summed up. And it has soapy melodrama played for tart laughs.
And yet The Descendants has less of those things than the director's previous films. Maybe Payne is getting kinder and gentler in middle age, but his latest foray into tragic-comedy is his least caustic and insightful to date. It's good, but far less than you'd expect from the guy who started his career with the gleefully provocative Citizen Ruth and Election.
And it all starts so promisingly. "Paradise can go fuck itself," announces Matt King (George Clooney) in the opening voice-over. After watching Matt's wife's last moments of joy in a pre-credit sequence (water skiing off Hawaii's big island), we see the tragic reality that followed. Elizabeth was badly injured in a boating accident and is comatose on life support. Worse, Matt's marriage was on the ropes and his relationship with his two daughters is strained. A successful attorney and executor to his family's large estate — a land trust of 25,000 protected acres on Kauai he's being pressured to sell — he must step from his role as the "back-up parent" and try to heal his family. Matt's youngest, 10-year-old Scottie, has a potty mouth and is prone to getting into fights. His eldest, 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley), squanders her time at a $35K a year private school, partying and skipping class. Dad has his hands full. Then, in an unexpected moment of connection, Alex reveals that she's been furious with her dying mother because she was carrying on an affair with a local real estate agent, Bryan Speer (Matthew Lillard). Matt becomes obsessed, desperate to understand who this man is and what he meant to his wife, and ends up working with Alex to uncover the truth. But she insists on bringing along her obnoxious burnout of a friend Sid (Nick Krause).
The Descendants offers lots of opportunity for Payne to confront love, loss, infidelity, parental failure and grief in his typically caustic way, squeezing bitter truths from his characters' least honorable acts. But unlike his past films, where his protagonists are foolishly flawed, broken in ways only they can heal, Matt plays a decent guy who, for the most part, behaves decently.
From a dramatic standpoint this doesn't give Clooney a whole lot to do. Since Payne puts all focus on Elizabeth's disloyalty, Matt only has to reach the point where he forgives her — without ever confronting any truths about himself. He's essentially the noble victim. Even his struggle to decide how to deal with his family's valuable land is defanged of confrontation or stakes, allowing his ultimate choice to have few personal consequences.
What elevates the frustration is that Clooney is an actor who can easily take on more. As good as he is (and he really is terrific), Matt is simply too underwritten and too sympathetic. Think of Paul Giamatti's toxic mix of desperation and self-loathing in Sideways or Matthew Broderick's petty hypocrisies in Election and the comparisons are stark. We spend the entire movie with Matt and yet learn next to nothing about him we didn't already know in the first 30 minutes.
Payne's tone is off as well. He and much of the cast seem unsure of when they're playing for laughs and when they're playing for pathos — though there are good moments of both. The transitions between deadpan humor and sentimental melodrama are awkward; Sid, for instance, is as contrived a comedic part as has ever been written — barely rising above sitcom conventions. And a hospital scene, where Speer's wife (Judy Greer) delivers a teary, heart-breaking speech to the dying woman who cheated with her husband, is confoundingly undermined with a bit of misguided comedy.
Nevertheless, Payne is such a skillful director whose mistakes are better than most filmmaker's successes. The Descendants boasts sharp observations about grief and forgiveness, and an uncanny sense of place. Despite Hawaii's sun-drenched locales, Matt's world feels convincingly everyday and insistently melancholy. Payne captures the rhythms of a family living under a cloud of uncertainty, and the complicated emotions that arise when a dying loved one is revealed to be less than they thought.
Woodley is a genuine find too, depicting the entitled brattiness of a teenager without sacrificing our sympathies for her character. Bonus points for casting Robert Forester as Elizabeth's hard-bitten grouch of a father.
Though Oscar talk will abound, and audiences will inevitably find much to admire about The Descendants, to my eye, it's a middling effort from a filmmaker who could have delivered much more.