The writer-director Alexander Payne has the right double-edged temperament for The Descendants, a “family comedy” in which the mother lies in a coma, on life support, while the father races around Hawaii, a chunk of which he’s about to sell off, looking for her illicit lover, with his daughters (10 and 17) in tow. Payne is too acerbic—maybe too much of an asshole—to settle for easy humanism. But he’s too smart a dramatist to settle for easy derision. Mockery and empathy seesaw, the balance precarious—and thrillingly so. It’s the noblest kind of satire: cruel and yet, in the end, lacking the killing blow.
Consider the opening shot of The Descendants, which is also its lone transcendent note: a woman’s face, elated, her eyes shining amid the sea spray, the ocean on all sides. That’s it—then comes the title. Only later do we realize that the woman was Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie), the wife of the protagonist and narrator, Matt (George Clooney), and that the moment was probably seconds before the water-skiing accident that put her in a coma. Why does Payne begin with that image, so remote from the narrator’s point of view? He obviously wants to plant it in our minds, where it will haunt us through the rest of the movie, through all the pettiness and bitchery and silliness. This was a woman who, we learn, thought she was about to be free of the inattentive husband with whom her daughters are now stuck.
Matt, the “backup parent” (his own words), is estranged from not only his family but also his homeland. He grew up wealthy in paradise, which he disparages in his opening voice-over monologue: “Paradise,” he concludes, “can go fuck itself.” Although he’s the great-grandson of a native princess who married a nonnative (haole) businessman, he was raised on the haole end of the spectrum. He sees neither the tourist nor the indigenous Hawaii: It’s all just real estate. And it’s about to make him rich. Matt is the trustee of 25,000 acres of untouched coastal land he co-owns with his cousins, descendants of Edward King and Princess Kekipi, the last direct descendant of King Kamehameha. Now the cousins—a motley bunch—are coming together to decide which developer gets to buy and cover their sacred inheritance with hotels, condos, and golf courses. Paradise really can go fuck itself.
The Descendants is very closely based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, but the casting of Clooney can’t help but throw it slightly out of whack. The actor labors diligently to overcome his natural glibness and ridiculously good looks to portray a man uncomfortable around people, uneasy with kids, and pissed off by everything—a self-absorbed workaholic. But can we accept him as someone who could be an utter nonpresence in the lives of his wife and kids? Hard. Very hard. On its own terms, though, it’s a sharp and affecting performance. Clooney’s Matt is a man who has just woken up to his life of mistakes, one he can’t correct and others that maybe—maybe—he can. There’s a sweaty desperation in his attempt to put things right that’s both amusing and unbearably sad. We remember the movie’s first shot. We know what he has lost.
Payne wrote the script sans his usual partner, Jim Taylor (who co-produced), and I miss Taylor’s softening touch. But just when you think that a character is too much of a cartoon, there’ll be a moment of revelation, a window through the façade. A too-tanned Beau Bridges is spookily good as the most prominent of Matt’s cousins, all rummy Hawaiian rhythms, the perfect mix of hipsterism and sleaze. As Elizabeth’s angry father, Robert Forster leans his bull head forward to show gray, gnarly nubs of hair, the perfect correlative for his gnarled, angry persona. Judy Greer, as the wife of Elizabeth’s lover (Matthew Lillard), has a final scene that’s a triumph for both her and Payne, an escalating rant cut short—hilariously—at the instant it starts to get ugly. Best of all are the kids: Amara Miller as pudgy, 10-year-old Scottie, still a child, still withdrawing into a fantasy refuge that’s soon to be (heartbreakingly) shattered, and Shailene Woodley as the willowy beauty Alexandra, who has had to grow up too fast and has already done things she’ll never forgive herself for. The strangest presence is Alexandra’s pal Sid (Nick Krause), a fount of stoner insults and exclamations, always the wrong character in the wrong place at the wrong time. But in the end, it’s hard to imagine The Descendants without the notes he brings. In Payne’s universe, there is no such thing as inappropriate, no pity without scorn, no farce without pity.