Early on in The Descendants, genial Hawaiian aristocrat Matt King (George Clooney) learns that his wife Elizabeth will never emerge from the coma she entered following a power-boating accident. Her living will directs her doctors to pull the plug, and that is that. The next day, his older daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) informs him that before the accident, Elizabeth was cheating; who the other man was, she doesn’t know. Distraught, Matt backs out of the room and takes off down the street at a dead sprint, intending to interrogate a pair of family friends who live nearby.
Matt’s run — flailing, lumbering, unathletic; he doesn’t have the shoes for it — is one of the film’s highlights, and a completely perfect movie moment. Clooney sells the hell out of it, but it’s really a manifestation of director Alexander Payne’s greatest gift: his ability to find delightfully cinematic absurdity in the everyday and the tragic. Maybe the best instance of this is found in Sideways, when Paul Giamatti’s frustration finally boils over in the form of an angry refusal to drink any merlot. The Descendants has a few other examples too. “Is this a bad time?” asks Matt upon charging into his friends’ house. “No, we’re just fighting,” one of them yells from upstairs.
The first 40 minutes of the film are lovely, impeccably believable and crushingly sad without turning morose. There is a single pre-credits shot of a grinning, euphoric Elizabeth — the only time we see her ambulatory — that took my breath away, and that haunts the rest of the movie like a ghost. The aforementioned scene where Alexandra breaks the further bad news to her father is just spectacular, understated and beautifully acted. (It also sneakily redefines Alexandra’s character, who theretofore had seemed hostile and estranged; now we learn why.) Clooney does some of his best, humblest work here as a man struggling to shove aside his regrets and his guilt and be a father to his two kids when they need him most.
These early scenes work so well because Payne doesn’t seem to force himself on the material; both the laughs and the pathos emerge organically. I think I can pinpoint the exact moment when Payne starts pushing too hard: a scene where Matt and Alexandra go to tell Elizabeth’s parents about her grim diagnosis, and for some reason decide to bring along Alexandra’s stoner boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), whereupon Sid decides to snicker at Matt’s dementia-afflicted mother-in-law and gets punched in the nose by her husband (Robert Forster). It’s a ridiculous scene that drew a big laugh, but I didn’t buy it for a second — its absurdity is manufactured, not found.
The Descendants never really regains the tender, naturalistic mojo of its first third. What follows is the creakiest, most plot-heavy stretch of Payne’s entire oeuvre, as Matt and his daughters trek to the Big Island to find and confront Elizabeth’s lover, who turns out to be integrally connected to the land deal that Matt and his numerous cousins are contemplating. (Matt is the trustee for a huge, extremely valuable family land inheritance, passed down to them from Kamehameha.) Sid tags along for comic relief and to annoy Matt, until it turns out that, of course, he has a heart of gold. The land deal subplot (will he sell or won’t he?) is a honking metaphor for Matt’s need to return to his roots as a coping strategy, and is resolved with a last-minute change of heart and a big speech.
The film is a pleasant, engaging sit, and Payne — with assists from Clooney — continues to find occasional moments that sparkle. The musical score, composed entirely of traditional Hawaiian tunes, is terrific; this might be Payne’s moodiest, most stylistically purposeful film. But much of it also finds the filmmaker operating in the same mode that more-or-less sunk About Schmidt — lots of forced humor and a heavy-handed screenplay that doesn’t let him play to his strengths. There’s little doubt that Payne’s still got it, but he seems to have temporarily misplaced it. The Descendants is far from his best work.