115 minutes | MPAA rating: R
Alexander Payne doesn’t make movie about big ideas.
He makes movies about small people, then makes us care about them, flaws and all.
In fact, it’s hard to name another contemporary director who has so successfully found the comedy in tragedy and the tragedy in comedy.
Matt King, the clueless Honolulu lawyer at the center of “The Descendants,” is a near cousin of “Sideways’” Miles, “Election’s” Jim McAllister and “About Schmidt’s” Warren Schmidt. He’s a not-particularly-nice guy thrown into circumstances that force him to face himself.
Matt (George Clooney, who actually looks his age here) is so wrapped up in his professional life — he’s negotiating the sale of 20,000 acres of pristine Hawaiian coast that’s been in his family for 150 years — that he’s ignored his wife and two daughters.
Now he has to pay attention.
Matt’s thrill-seeking spouse Elizabeth lies in a vegetative coma, the result of a high-speed boating accident. Always the backup quarterback, Matt now finds himself thrust into the role of sole parent to 12-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), who acts out in antisocial ways, and 16-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), fetched from the boarding school to which she was consigned because of her affair with drink and drugs.
“The Descendants” (the screenplay is by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) centers on a revelation from Alexandra that her mother has been having an affair. Matt, who knew the marriage wasn’t great but never paid much attention to the signs around him, is stunned.
With his two girls and Alexandra’s shaggy stoner friend Sid (a hilarious Nick Krause), Matt begins a comical search to locate and confront his wife’s lover.
Did I just write “comical”? Well, there is some very funny stuff here. But the wonder of Payne’s style is the way moments of very human foible coexist with a growing sense of mortality and sadness.
Payne’s ability to turn on a dime, to shift from chuckles to tears and back again, is quietly breathtaking.
So, too, is his ability to balance a personal story against a bigger, broader canvas. In this case it’s Matt’s upcoming land deal. The sprawling King family are the descendants of a Hawaiian princess and a Haole businessman; the clan has fallen into a state of lazy dissipation, with scores of jobless cousins depending on the sale to turn them into overnight millionaires.
The sale is opposed by environmental groups and many native Hawaiians, leaving Matt torn between family loyalty and civic responsibility.
Not that much happens here in a conventional narrative sense, but there’s tons going on emotionally as Matt and his daughters slowly come together.
Payne is nothing if not charitable toward his characters. Even Elizabeth’s lover (Matthew Lillard), a married real estate salesman with children, and the seemingly thick Sid emerge as well rounded if not entirely sympathetic personalities.
The film’s emotional heart, though, belongs to the father/daughter relationship between Matt and Alexandra, and here Clooney and newcomer Woodley strike sparks — not of the romantic sort but of two actors digging deep into their characters and developing a true if troubling family dynamic.
Expect Oscar nominations for both of them. And for writer/director Payne as well.
| Robert W. Butler