Has it really been seven years since Alexander Payne’s last movie? I thought Sideways (2004) was the most exquisite American romantic comedy since Annie Hall, and though it was only Payne’s third mature high-profile feature (after Election and About Schmidt), it locked in the essential elements of the Payne style: the naturalistic blend of humanity and wit (think ’80s Jonathan Demme meets Preston Sturges); the new New Hollywood classicism that’s bubbly and spontaneous but always masterfully controlled; the sense that every story isn’t just a story but a journey, a road movie of the soul.
The Descendants, Payne’s long-awaited new film, is another beautifully chiseled piece of filmmaking — sharp, funny, generous, and moving — that writes its own rules as much as About Schmidt or Sideways did. In a funny way, Payne has become the Stanley Kubrick of serious American comedy: He takes forever to make a movie, searching every time (as Kubrick did) for the perfect book to adapt. But when he finally discovers it and gets rolling (in this case, it’s a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings), he turns each film into a masterfully realized and inhabited universe. Almost everything about The Descendants seems novel, from the lived-in, slightly grungy urban Hawaii settings (the movie is about a family that has been on the islands for generations) to the less-smooth-than-usual image of George Clooney as Matt King, a rumpled lawyer in ugly tropical shirts, geeky-dad braided belts, and an ordinary-schmo haircut. He’s a man who has lost any vital connection to his family.
Then there’s the film’s premise, which is so unabashed in its everyday darkness that at first it seems a bit…challenging. Before the credits, we see a woman standing, smiling in the sun, on a motorboat. It’s Matt’s wife, who, as we soon learn, was thrown from that boat and now lies in a hospital bed seriously injured. As the film begins, she’s in a coma, and the news may be even worse than that. The Descendants isn’t a when is she going to wake up? movie. It’s something with a much more dire tug: An oh my God she may die and if she does what are we gonna do? movie.
The “we,” in this case, is Matt and his two daughters. Ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) is a happy-go-lucky brat, and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, about whom you’re going to be hearing a lot) is such an unhappy brat that she’s been sent off to boarding school, where she favors drunken nights on the beach. The more we learn about this family, the more impossibly messed-up we can see they are. Yet Matt, who’s sitting on a trust that he’s too conservative, and maybe too stingy, to use (the family owns the last spectacular virgin beach land in Hawaii), isn’t just thrown into the abyss by his wife’s coma. He’s slapped in the face and woken up.
The Descendants has been made with the deceptively simple flow of an improvised adventure. And though some of what happens sounds conventional, and is, the situations keep twisting, whether it’s the comical hunting down of an adulterous lover or Matt’s attempt to sell off that trust and make a killing for both himself and a clan of breezy, greedy cousins. All the acting is freshly minted. Robert Forster plays Matt’s father-in-law, who’s so cantankerous that it takes you a few minutes to realize that everything he says is true. Matthew Lillard, goofy and beaming yet with a gentle desperation of his own, is the man who becomes Matt’s slightly absurd romantic rival, and Beau Bridges is the mellow-on-the-outside hard-ass cousin. As for Woodley, she makes the teenage Alexandra such a sharp, beguiling presence that she seems to wash away the residue of a thousand bogus movie adolescents.
It’s George Clooney, though, who carries The Descendants on his noble and weary shoulders. He’s still a rascal, but with the gleam in his eye now heightened (shockingly) by traces of fear. I wouldn’t say that he’s better here than he was in Up in the Air, but that was the movie that taught us that we weren’t being suckered if we felt George Clooney’s pain. In The Descendants, he draws upon that trust. He gives a pitch-perfect performance as a man awakened, for the first time in years, by the immensity of his loss. His big hospital scene near the end will be hailed as a classic Oscar-bait moment, and it surely is — but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a great moment, too. It turns sentimentality into something like grace. A