Director: Alexander Payne
MPAA Rating: R
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Alexander Payne needn’t be the most prolific writer-director when he’s proven with Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt and Sideways that he is an ace at comedies of discomfort and dislocation. The Descendants, his first film in seven years and which he adapted with Jim Rash and Nat Faxon from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ 2007 novel, continues Payne’s winningly wayward, contrarian, humanist streak.
It’s a comedy about profound grief in which George Clooney plays a work-driven, distracted, half-white, half-Hawaiian lawyer, the self-described “backup parent” of two young daughters, each of them awkwardly confronting the aftermath of a freak boating accident that leaves their wife, their mother hospitalized and comatose. The movie, though set in Hawaii and boasting a soundtrack overflowing with mellifluous slack key guitar classics, doesn’t always look as lush and paradisiacal as we’d expect; this is often a Hawaii of traffic jams, gnarly high-rises, grouchy people, conflicted motivations and muddy skies. It’s an island seen through the eyes of bereavement.
The movie’s thrust and emotional power don’t come from plot so much as it does from the characters’ shifting moods, their subterranean sea changes, their intimations that they have descended from something better, nobler and more worthy. In the course of the movie, Clooney must wrestle with how to say goodbye to his wife, which puts him at odds with both his prickly father-in-law (a terrific Robert Forster) and with an unlikely but significant figure from his spouse’s recent past (Matthew Lillard). He is also the largest shareholder in a family trust that controls the last untouched acres of coastal land left to him by his Hawaiian ancestors, and, because his family wants to unload and cash-in, he is put head to head with a boozy, sad-eyed sellout cousin played (superbly) by Beau Bridges. Clooney's frayed, broken performance is absolutely top of the line and he gets perfectly matched by young Shailene Woodley. Woodley plays his feisty, combative teenage daughter and beautifully conveys every bit of the damage done by her parents’ problematic relationship.
It’s a gentle movie, wise, sad and funny, that sidesteps big, flashy “wow” moments. In its quiet way, though, it’s devastating, one of the standout films of the year and Clooney is simply masterful. Whatever Payne decides to do next, it’s likely to be worth the wait.