Paradise lost -- and found: ‘Descendants’ stars a paunchy Clooney as a dad in Hawaii shaken by life
"The Descendants’’ is a relatively minor work from director Alexander Payne, by which I mean it’s in a major key, with little if any of the astringent character observation of “Sideways,’’ “Election,’’ or “About Schmidt.’’ It’s nicer, if you can deal with that. Yet I can’t think of another movie this year that made me laugh or weep harder for the whole lumpy business of being - the compromises and connections that get us through the day and somehow add up to entire lives.
Actually, I can think of one other movie: Tom McCarthy’s “Win Win,’’ from earlier in the year - another human tragicomedy about the responsible American male under duress. Maybe you have to be in the right gender/age/income bracket to get the most meat from these films (and from their darker brother, Jeff Nichols’s “Take Shelter’’); probably not. I don’t think it’s a coincidence, though, that all these movies are arriving at a time when economic uncertainty has made the self-delusions of the average guy harder and harder to maintain.
Not that Matt King (George Clooney) is feeling the pinch. For one thing, he lives in Hawaii, which, even if he admits isn’t the paradise mainlanders think, is still Hawaii. For another, he and his many cousins are the descendants of the first white haoles who colonized the islands in the 19th century, so he’s more than well off - rich without being a jerk about it.
For a third thing, he looks like George Clooney, or a baggier, paunchier version of same. Matt’s the guy who had it all in youth, learned to appreciate it later in life, and still could use a good kick in the pants. The movie is more than happy to provide. When “The Descendants’’ opens, the hero’s wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), is lying comatose in a Honolulu hospital after a boating accident and Matt is rounding up his daughters, 16-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley) and 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller). It’s not an overstatement to say that all three women are complete strangers to him.
“I’m the backup parent - the understudy,’’ Matt informs us in the film’s not very necessary voice-over, a remnant of Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel. The movie’s about coming to grips with tragedy but also about the small-scale absurdities of the process - how you can keep being surprised, for better and for worse, by people you thought you knew. Alex in particular is gradually deepened in Matt’s eyes and ours (and her own) from a shallow, rebellious teen to a keeper of family secrets and ultimately the one adult her father can trust.
Adolescent daughters with separate and distinct lives? For some of us, that’s a daily shock. For Matt, a decent guy who understands what’s being asked of him, it’s a chance to measure how deaf he has been up to now. Clooney gives such an invisible performance here that you may not notice the depth of the trick - that he’s a handsome movie star playing an entitled upper-class lawyer yet still conveying the weary, beleaguered confusion of a guy who’s in the same boat we are. One of the lasting comic images of “The Descendants’’ is of the hero racing a few blocks to a friend’s house to confirm some unpleasant news about his wife; as he slaps awkwardly down the road in shorts and moccasins you may think to yourself, yes, that is how a lot of us get places.
Unlike Payne’s previous films, this one is gentle with its hero - some audiences may feel too much so. A lovely soundtrack of Hawaiian folk songs wafts through the proceedings, keeping the tone deceptively light. As Matt and Alex make their rounds of family and friends, cleaning up Elizabeth’s affairs, the daughter’s sort-of boyfriend (Nick Krause) tags along, a dude not much brighter than the dog in “Up’’ and with as much heart. He’s the film’s comic relief until the scene where Payne pops him briefly and sharply into three-dimensional life.
That’s the drama of “The Descendants’’: that the people we stereotype as one thing or another are always so much more. The film’s most affecting character may be Elizabeth’s father, Scott, a blowhard with thinning hair and pasty legs played by an unrecognizable Robert Forster. All his life he has idolized his daughter and been down on Matt, and in two successive sequences we understand how wrong he has been about her and how much of that wrongness comes from the simple love of a parent for a child.
In its second hour, the movie approaches a pitch of sad, knowing farce. Matt treks to Kauai to confront a man in Elizabeth’s life and the comedy lies in his graceful control of the situation - he just doesn’t have anything left to lose. Well, it’s also funny that the other man, a prosperous realtor, is played by Matthew Lillard as a Shaggy from “Scooby-Doo’’ who has made it to middle age with no clear idea how. (And it’s deliciously funny that Judy Greer plays Shaggy’s wife, slipping imperceptibly from chirpiness to sorrow.)
Every so often, “The Descendants’’ pulls back for a wider picture of colonial well-to-do in a spoiled but still lush Eden. Matt’s family is selling off their last big parcel of land on Kauai, and all the cousins (led by a raffish Beau Bridges) are sure they’re doing the right thing by dealing with a local developer rather than mainland interests. In a manner that’s predictable yet rarely forced, Matt comes to see things differently - to value the invisible lines that connect him to his daughters, his ancestors, and the people whose land they stole.
“The Descendants’’ is about saying goodbye to the things we take for granted, and, true, maybe there’s one too many third-act speeches about that. But the film is an enormous pleasure all the same, and it ends just where it should, with Matt’s family looking out at us even as we look in on them and wonder exactly whose court the ball is in.