As far as settings go, Hawaii is about as far from the Omaha metro area as can be imagined. So in that sense, writer/director Alexander Payne has moved on. That said, his shuffle from America’s contiguous confines marks only a radical departure in terms of geography, as The Descendants is the exact type of muted semi-drama we’ve come to expect. Chock full of quirky quiet moments and populated by ever-so-modestly exaggerated characters, Payne likely didn’t add to his bag of tricks because he simply didn’t need to.
The shift of landscape was not merely an attempt to escape Nebraska’s fickle weather patterns, as Hawaii herself is almost a character and advances the plot more than most. Matt King (George Clooney) is the head of a trust that has owned a vast tract of virgin Hawaiian ground for nearly two centuries. Due to legal restrictions, the time has come to at least consider selling out, paving paradise to put up a parking lot and a number of resorts. But just as his big deal is approaching, Matt’s wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) has a boating accident that leaves her comatose. How Payne and co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash are able to squeeze comedy from events that sound like melodramatic fodder is anyone’s guess.
Especially when considering the revelation made by Matt’s rebellious teenage daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley): Elizabeth was doing the horizontal hula with real estate agent Brian Speer (Matthew Lilard). With his world imploding, Matt assembles an entourage consisting of his youngest daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), Alexandra and Alexandra’s surfer-dude boyfriend, Sid (Nick Krause), in order to find the man who cuckolded him and gain some measure of closure. Essentially, the film somehow becomes a quasi-road movie set in a place where there really aren’t many roads.
To take nothing away from what is likely an excellent novel, written by Kaui Hart Hemmings, the weakest moments in The Descendents are unquestionably plot-derived. The land sale subplot is dry and awkward; it leaps from behind bushes whenever a contrivance is needed before sulking away. But it’s a minor hindrance, as Payne and company wisely devote themselves to the business of family and not the family business.
Yes, Clooney is exceptional as advertised, smudging the ever-present twinkle in his eyes to lip-quivering effect. In weaker hands, his character’s tired flaw—the “dad who works too much”—would have been an unbearable albatross. But it is not Clooney who steals the show, as Woodley’s sass-mouthed rebel strikes a glorious balance of doe-eyed innocence and tough-as-nails resilience. It’s the kind of performance Payne has been finding in lesser-known actors for years. Best of all is how the director gives each of his players, however minor the role, a chance to sizzle. For example, there is a simple scene between Clooney and Krause that is as close to perfect as four minutes in a movie can possibly be.
Watching this new three-legged family finally stand is a moving, sometimes hilarious thing. And although the content may be slight on significance, it is loaded with emotional gravity. It may be Payne’s first full flick in nearly seven years, but The Descendants sure makes it feel like he never left.
Grade = A-