If there’s something fundamentally wrong with The Descendants, I can’t find it. What I see ranks high on the list of the year’s best films. Director Alexander Payne is a master of the human comedy, of the funny, moving and messy details that define a fallible life. In adapting the 2009 novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, Payne and co-screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have given George Clooney the context to deliver the finest, truest and most emotionally raw performance of his career. Clooney has never exposed himself to the camera this openly, downplaying the star glamour and easy charm. Even the laughs come with a sting.
Don’t worry. The Descendants isn’t Hamlet or anything with crowns. Still, Clooney’s Matt King, a workaholic semi-schlub of a Honolulu attorney, is descended from royal blood: His great-great-grandmother was a Hawaiian princess who married a haole (white) banker and passed on a rich chunk of real estate. As the primary beneficiary of 25,000 acres of Kauai paradise, Matt must decide to keep the land unspoiled or sell it to developers to please an army of cousins, led by a hilariously greedy Beau Bridges.
Matt also has personal issues. A boating accident has left his neglected wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), in a coma and left Matt (the self-proclaimed “backup parent”) in charge of their two daughters, sass queen Scottie (Amara Miller, a firecracker), 10, and seen-it-all Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), 17, whose reckless ways with boys and drugs has landed her in boarding school. Just when Matt steps it up as a husband and father, life blindsides him, first when he’s informed that Elizabeth will never come out of her coma (should he pull the plug?), and when Alex tells him that Mom was cheating on him (should he dive into denial?).
I’ll pause here to let you sneer at what sounds like TV soap slop. This is where Payne comes in. He walks the high wire between humor and heartbreak with unerring skill. No net. Just when you think you have him figured, you haven’t. The scene in which Alexandra sprawls on a sofa and slams her clueless dad with a catalog of domestic betrayals is devastating. Dynamite is the word for Woodley (TV’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager), who deserves to join Clooney and the movie on the march to awards glory.
With the help of ace cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, Payne gives us a lived-in Hawaii, not the postcard version. As Matt says, the real power brokers “look like bums and stuntmen.” Payne has a knack for digging deep. Look at the marvels he achieved in his first four movies (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways). The Descendants puts Payne at five-for-five.
It’s been seven years since Payne directed Sideways, but he hasn’t lost his touch. I feared a cliché tsunami when Matt hauls the family, including Alexandra’s stoner boyfriend, Sid (a terrific Nick Krause), off to Kauai to confront his wife’s realtor lover, Brian Speer (a revelatory Matthew Lillard, a long way from Scooby-Doo). Instead, Payne turns the seemingly banal into a vastly entertaining and acutely perceptive meditation on what defines family. The actors could not be better, from Robert Forster, as Matt’s hardass father-in-law, to Judy Greer, who turns three scenes as Brian’s cheated-on wife into an explosive tour de force. Payne knows Clooney’s face makes a bruised and eloquent canvas. Matt ultimately speaks blunt truths to his comatose wife, his eyes reflecting long-buried ferocity and feeling. The film ends in family silence in what only appears to be a throwaway. With Payne, every beat counts. As the film’s soundtrack deftly blends traditional and modern Hawaiian music, Payne provokes timeless questions about race, class, conscience and identity. Payne’s low-key approach only deepens the film’s intimate power. Want a movie you can really connect with? The Descendants is damn near perfect.