Alexander Payne, where’ve you been? How the hell are ya? Come here, and gimme a hug.
Seven years after the release of his film “Sideways,” one of the most acerbic and piercing entries in our century’s dime-a-dozen crop of indie dramedies, the sorely missed writer/director has returned, and now he’s a bit of a softie. But that doesn’t mean that his current film “The Descendants,” co-written by Payne alongside Jim Rash and Nat Faxon based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel, lacks the wincing laughs and quietly heart-splitting drama. The new Payne is gentle, with eyes on the heart rather than the head, but his work is still Payneful nonetheless.
Here, Payne moves from the disenchanted worlds of Middle America in “About Schmidt” and “Sideways” to the hot, tropical, but no less disenchanted, archipelago of Hawaii. But this Hawaii is not what we know from postcards. “I haven’t been on a surfboard in 15 years,” says Matt King (George Clooney) in a voiceover. Sure, the water is cool and the sand dazzly-white, but the realm of “The Descendants” is as desperate and despondent as anything out of, say, Charlie Kaufman, with whom Payne certainly shares an attentive ear for dialogue.
When the film starts, Matt is reeling from his wife’s boating accident off Waikiki, not just because his dearly beloved is trapped in a coma, but because he is left to deal with his two willful daughters Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). “I’m the back-up parent, the understudy,” he says. Clearly he his ill equipped to handle the burden of childrearing (particularly for Scottie, an adolescent) as his dotage approaches.
As if a comatose spouse weren’t stressful enough, Matt has been bequeathed the unwieldy duty of selling or keeping a huge expanse of island land his family inherited. As the principal land baron, Matt has a motley crew of cousins on his ass — one of whom is played by Michael Ontkean, better known as Sheriff Truman in “Twin Peaks” — begging him to sell the land so they can all make bank. But Matt is consternated, conflicted and spends a lot of time furrowing his brow over this decision. You can guess how it turns out.
The plot takes some wry and amusing turns, including one involving ’90s-bro-growed-up Matthew Lillard as a simpering real estate agent, and the lovely, effervescent Judy Greer as his dutiful wife. This twist, I, unlike the film’s overeager trailer, won’t spoil. But most of “The Descendants” is about Matt devoting himself to his own descendants and improving relations with his children.
As Matt, Clooney is shaggy, world-worn and sacks his dapper Hollywood smarm for a role that is perhaps his most Oscar-baiting yet because he is willing to get ugly, and into a Tommy Bahama getup. Matt joins the ranks of Miles of “Sideways” (Paul Giamatti) and Warren in “About Schmidt” (Jack Nicholson) as one in a triad of sad sacks that you can easily warm up to, and also feel embarrassed for, often at once.
“The Descendants” marks five-for-five for Alexander Payne, who in addition to the other dark comedies I mentioned, has directed “Citizen Ruth” (1996) and “Election” (1999), both about strongly written protagonists overcoming adversities of their own making.
Given the inherently heavy-handed and overused theme of the dysfunctional nuclear family reunited in the wake of tragedy, “The Descendants” is too heartwarming and feel-good when set against such a dark body of work, as most of Payne’s films find their protagonists lost and dejected in the end, with only a squeeze of hope. But everyone involved, particularly Clooney and the two young actresses who play his daughters, is fully committed to the material. And if you aren’t convinced by everything I have said, then at the very least, “The Descendants” portrays a true Hawaii, and one I’d like to visit.