What we have with The Descendants is a kinder, gentler Alexander Payne. The writer/director who gave us such films as About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2004), delivers a film that is less cynical about its main characters than much of his previous work. It's a good movie with a few beautifully honest moments, but in the final analysis, it's a bit too nice and tidy and just doesn't hold up as well compared with his previous efforts.
The story itself is a serious one; that of a successful lawyer named Matt King (George Clooney), who has been given the task of selling a family trust of thousands of acres of prime native Hawaiian land that some of his relatives and he have inherited. Due to a law that prohibits ownership in perpetuity, they have only seven years left to decide who to sell the land to, be it a local group or out-of-town developers.
It's a big task and it keeps Matt knee deep in paperwork and meetings. But that pales in comparison to his most serious concern; his wife was seriously injured in a boating accident and is in a coma at the local hospital. It isn't long before Matt learns that there is no hope for his wife, so he must take care of this business as well as the real estate sale and perhaps most importantly, break the news to his two daughters, 17-year old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and 10-year old Scottie (Amara Miller).
This is of course, a difficult and slightly clumsy challenge for Matt, but it becomes more complicated when he learns a fact about his wife that his oldest daughter knew, but had not previously shared with her father. Matt is floored by this news (I won't give this plot detail away), something that affects both him personally and as it soon turns out, could alter his business plans as far as the land sale.
What I like about this film is the way that Matt deals with his daughters. The dialogue (by Nat Faxon, Jim Rash and Payne, based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings) is smart and realistic; this is a far more accurate depiction of how young girls talk than a film such as Juno, for example. It's the same on other levels as well, as when Matt goes to his neighbors for advice with his problems. There are a lot of clumsy moments that nicely reflect the awkward moments in our life.
Clooney, who is in every scene in this film, is the glue that holds this story together and he's more than up to the challenge. He deep voice confirms a sense of calm, even when things are going haywire. He's even more effective however, when he doesn't speak- his focus sharpens and his face tightens, as you know he wants to say something, but doesn't. This is especially true in the scenes with Robert Forster, who portrays Clooney's father-in-law, who blames Matt for the accident that gravely injured his daughter.
The scenes that Clooney and Forster share - one at Forster's home and one at the hospital - are the best moments in this film. There's an anger that pervades Forster's vision, as he doesn't know all the facts. Clooney could tell him everything, but doesn't, if only for not wanting an even bigger conflict on his hands. The screenplay at these moments asks us, "how much is enough?"- are there indeed secrets that are not worth sharing, even if divulging those secrets can ease our pain?
This overriding message is the one that makes The Descendants a successful film. It is a strong enough point to outweigh some of the pat situations here, as I feel that things are wrapped up a bit too tidy with this film. A few more serious questions could have been asked and I believe this would have been a better film for it. Dealing with the death of a loved one is a somber challenge to anyone and this is a good look at the subject, but except for the scenes with Forster, there isn't the bite to this film that you expect. Payne gave us some pretty cynical characters in his previous works and for me, these characters added a lot of depth to those stories, which dealt with a number of crazy- and sad - moments in the human condition. I prefer the old Payne and hope he returns to that vision in his future works. But for now, The Descendants will have to do.