The Descendants is writer-director Alexander Payne's first film since 2004's Sideways, a critical, box-office (relative to budget and expectations), and industry triumph that landed five major Oscar nominations, including a win for Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor for Best Adapted Screenplay.
While Payne hasn't exactly been in the wilderness — he shot a short for the omnibus film Paris, Je T'aime and has been a producer on the television series Hung and the recent comedy hit Cedar Rapids — seven years is an unusually long time to take to follow up a success of that magnitude, especially since Payne isn't exactly the volatile-genius auteur type or someone who stages massive, complicated productions.
And rather than come out of this hiatus with some kind of formal departure, The Descendants falls in line with all of Payne's films since his 1999 breakthrough, Election. These films are primarily writing and acting exercises, presented in a basic, straightforward visual style and often deploying voiceover narration from the protagonist, who is always a white male in some state of personal upheaval.
In Election, it was Matthew Broderick's resentful teacher. In About Schmidt, it was Jack Nicholson's roaming widower. And in Sideways, it was Paul Giamatti's unhappy divorcé and unpublished novelist. In The Descendants, it's George Clooney as a lawyer who discovers that his wife, who is in a vegetative state after a boating accident, was having an affair.
The Descendants, adapted from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, continues Payne's recent westward trend, from his native Nebraska (with Election and About Schmidt) to California (Sideways) to Hawaii, where Clooney's Matt King is descended from island royalty and the executor of a family trust that includes a large parcel of virgin beachfront his various cousins want to sell off to a resort developer.
Matt is trying to navigate these negotiations when his daredevil wife finds herself in an irreparable coma, her will specifying that she be taken off life support. "Paradise? Paradise can go fuck itself," Matt says of his island home in the opening voiceover.
Forced to inform family and close friends of his wife's fate, Matt gathers his daughters — 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old boarding-schooler Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) — keeping the truth from the former as long as he can but insisting the latter help him deliver the bad news. An upset Alexandra reveals the mother's affair, and Matt's attempt to find the truth and meet his wife's lover becomes the film's central action.
While Election hit a Gen X/Gen Y nerve with such comic ferocity that it's a time-capsule-worthy classic, Payne's subsequent films have tended to depend heavily on their lead performances. I found Nicholson so phony in About Schmidt that even the good supporting work of Kathy Bates and, especially, Hope Davis couldn't save it, while Giamatti's usual excellence led a superb ensemble in Sideways.
Clooney's performance — and this film's success — rises well above Nicholson/About Schmidt while falling more than a little short of Giamatti/Sideways. Clooney is slightly de-glammed here as a square lawyer who lacks his wife's adventurousness and makes a point of not living off his inheritance. Clooney is spot-on playing the frazzled, suddenly solo dad managing the complicated family dynamics of the ongoing real estate deal and finally forcing a deft, tactful confrontation with his wife's lover (Matthew Lillard) and his unknowing, sympathetic wife (Judy Greer).
But in the heavy emotional scenes — a monologue over his wife's body that echoes (surely intentionally) Last Tango in Paris, a later hospital room scene with Greer — Clooney falters. Payne, at times, tries to mix sorrow and humor but can't always pull it off. The tones sit side-by-side rather than blend, and Clooney seems a little lost. His struggles in these scenes are underscored by how assuredly the young, generally unknown Woodley (of the television series The Secret Life of the American Teenager) hits these notes in a show-stealing performance.
If The Descendants wobbles some and is less memorable than Sideways, it's still a strong, generally well-acted film. Arriving early in the fall/winter awards-season rush, it may not be paradise but will be something of an oasis amid lesser alternatives.
Opening Wednesday, November 23rd