Elvis never had it so rough in paradise as the poor protagonist of Alexander Payne’s smart, well-observed family dramedy, The Descendants — a welcome return from hiatus for the writer-director of Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways. Admittedly, The Descendants runs a bit long, and has more endings than Return of the King. Still, this elegiac 21-century Hawaiian tale of a distracted paterfamilias coming to grips with a decision to DNR his wife after a terrible accident has the attention to detail and human foibles we have come to expect from Payne, and the mournful-rainbow quality of an IZ cover. In short, this is quite a good film.
After a brief pre-credit moment of zen with the woman (Patricia Hastie) whose boating accident is the crux of the story, we meet Matt King (George Clooney, very good), a Honolulu attorney with a lot on his plate. His wife is still in a coma several weeks after the incident, and her condition isn’t improving. His younger daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) is more than he knows how to handle (he’s “the backup parent”), and his older daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, a real find) is fast becoming a reprobate at a boarding school on the Big Island. The beautiful parcel of Kauai land his (haole) family has owned for generations is up for sale, and he alone has to choose a buyer — a decision all of his many cousins are watching with keen interest. And, it soon comes out, the woman he has spent his life with, and who he must now help his family and friends say farewell to, has been having an affair with a local real estate agent (Matthew Lillard), and was, in fact, planning to leave him. Life in a Hawaiian paradise? “Paradise,” King tells us in a voiceover early on, “can go f**k itself.”
Like Schmidt and Sideways, most of the rest of the film involves a road trip journey of self-discovery — this time to beautiful Kauai (where, if you’ve ever visited there, Princeville and downtown Hanalei both get their druthers.) Along for the ride is Alexandra’s amiable, dim-witted boyfriend (Nick Krause), and at various times we meet Matt’s take-no-guff father-in-law (Robert Forster), beachbum cousin (Beau Bridges), and the Other Man’s sweet, unknowing wife (Judy Greer). But, unlike say, About Schmidt, where Dermot Mulroney and his family of rednecks were mostly just joke fodder, The Descendants is less sneering and more open-hearted toward its cast of extended characters (even Inconsiderate Cell Phone Man, who shows up as the husband-half of the Kings’ couple-friends.)
Along with best adapted screenplay — this is based on a book by Kaui Hart Hemmings — I would also expect The Descendants to garner Oscar nods for the very naturalistic Woodley and another for Clooney, who maintains his record of quality here. (Does any leading man have a better one? Even his bad films — The Good German, say — are usually interesting failures.) We’ve already seen Clooney suffer existential crises the past two years in Up in the Air and The American, but this one also stands on its own. His King isn’t the hyper-competent individual of those other two films — He’s just a well-meaning guy, who’s been distracted from his life for too long, trying to make the best of a bad hand.