The Descendants ✮✮✮1/2
by Glenn Lovell
Alexander Payne, you’ve been gone too long.
It’s been, what, seven years since Payne’s last film, the quirky and unexpected “Sideways”? And because his soft satiric touch ‒ also amply displayed in “About Schmidt” ‒ is so rare in an industry defined by crass excess, those seven years passed like seventy.
But now all is forgiven. Payne is back with “The Descendants,” his obviously Oscar-bound adaptation of the Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel about grief, greed and second chances in a plush island Paradise about to be bulldozed into one more tourist mecca.
An almost deadpan George Clooney plays Matt King, a wealthy but hardly ostentatious Honolulu lawyer. King and his tribe of cousins are the descendants of an Hawaiian princess and her haole (white) husband, whose prime beachfront property is about to be sold off to a developer. King ‒ who as executor of the trust has the last word on the transaction ‒ stands to reap millions, provided he signs on the dotted line.
All Hawaii is following his every move. Will he go the Pebble Beach route or ignore the deadline and eventually allow the land to cede back to its rightful owners, the indigenous people of Hawaii?
A tough decision, made tougher by the fact that King’s wife Elizabeth lies in a coma as a result of a speedboat accident. Elizabeth, it seems, was something of a thrill-seeker ‒ in recreation and romance. No sooner does King learn that his wife will never awake, he’s blindsided by the news that she had taken a lover and planned to seek a divorce. Now, in this less-than-optimum state of mind, he must go from lackadaisical “backup parent” of two daughters to full-time guardian.
Payne’s latest, co-scripted with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, unfolds as both mystery (who’s the jerk Elizabeth was seeing?) and, like “Sideways” and “About Schmidt,” a languorous road picture. King ‒ with his daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) and a seemingly brain-dead teenager named Sid (Nick Krause) in tow ‒ island-hops from Oahu to the Big Island to Kauai, site of the 25,000-acre family inheritance. The laughs, when they come, are at once rude and heart-felt, i.e. character-driven. This is one of those rare left-field comedies that slowly enwraps you in its arms. We genuinely care about these people and root for their salvation. No mean feat these days when “Hangover”/”Bridesmaids” sex farces dominate at the box office.
Of course it helps when you can attract one of the year’s best ensembles. Clooney delivers his most nuanced performance to date as the father stumbling through life. In some ways his character is charmingly dense, a man constantly surprising himself with his blurted ultimatums; elsewhere, he’s the tragic fool who, too late, beseeches his comatose wife, “I’m ready to talk. I’m ready to be a real husband father. I’m ready to change.” Woodley and Miller are equally fine as the daughters ‒ one a giddy confederate in crime, the other a potty-mouthed innocent. Robert Forster plays Elizabeth’s gruff but grief-stricken father, who’s quick to lay blame at his son-in-law’s feet, and Beau Bridges makes the most of his brief appearance as aging beach bum Cousin Hugh, whose laidback demeanor almost, but not quite, masks an ugly temper.
For all its virtues, “The Descendants” is not Payne’s best film. That distinction still belongs to “Election,” his hilarious send-up of high school politics. It could be that Payne has been away from the screen too long. In spots the pacing in this new film seems lax, slightly off, and the Sid character, sold initially as class dunce, doesn’t quite track in the later scenes. But these are small quibbles. Payne once again feels his characters’ pain and this makes for something very special, an achingly sad comedy of errors.
THE DESCENDANTS ✮✮✮1/2 With George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Nick Krause, Robert Forster, Matthew Lillard, Amara Miller, Beau Bridges. Directed by Alexander Payne; scripted by Pay, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash from Kaui Hart Hemmings novel. 115 min. Rated R (for profanity, adult situations)