“The Descendants,” Alexander Payne’s lost-in-paradise dramedy, depicts the bumpy awakening of a failed family man, which begins when his wife suffers a terrible boating accident and follows him as he stumbles, sputters and struggles to parent his troubled daughters.
The movie is not only an awards- season highlight, it’s a modest miracle.
Payne, whose films include “About Schmidt” and “Sideways,” specializes in stories about unfulfilled, emotionally derailed people who, suddenly socked by life, find themselves on rocky but meaningful journeys — with untidy resolutions, off-kilter dynamics and small dips and triumphs substituting for big-bang melodrama and packaged cliches.
This time, adapting Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel (with two additional screenwriters), Payne sets the action in Hawaii, a place whose paradisiacal quality is deceiving, according to Honolulu lawyer Matt King (George Clooney), trustee of 25,000 acres of unspoiled real estate handed down from his great-grandmother, a royal native.
Detached from his roots, Matt is preparing to decide whether to sell the land to developers — a deal that would turn the property into golf courses but leave him and his greedy cousins obscenely rich.
Eclipsing that dilemma is the speedboat accident that lands Matt’s wife, Elizabeth, in an irremediable coma. A self-described “backup parent,” Matt must now become a full-fledged father to frustrated 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and angry 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley).
Then comes another shocker: Mom was having an affair when she had the accident, Alex reveals.
Shaken and overwhelmed, Matt embarks on a trip around the islands with Scottie, Alex and Alex’s dopey friend, Sid (Nick Krause), in tow. His multiple mission is to inform loved ones about Elizabeth’s condition, to handle the real estate matter and to track down Elizabeth’s lover.
Payne and Clooney reap comic mileage from the latter quest.
No big surprises happen. We know where the attempts at reconnection and redemption are headed.
But Payne offers appealingly flawed and captivatingly human characters whose predicaments inspire viewers’ serious investment. Between the major plot points is a gold mine of small surprises.
Rarely is a studio film about grief and life support so unlike a soap opera, or so charged with humor.
The sight of Matt tearing out of the house in dorky-looking flats after learning of his wife’s infidelity is a hoot, for starters. Matt’s private moments with the comatose Elizabeth are immensely moving.
Clooney, who shines when playing characters experiencing inner upheaval, combines natural charm with raw acting. He’s both funny and affecting as a guy so detached from his emotions that he can’t make an efficient move.
Multishaded supporting characters enrich the picture. Beau Bridges, playing Matt’s casual-aggressive cousin; Robert Forster, as Matt’s churlish father-in-law; and Judy Greer, as the cheated-on wife of Elizabeth’s lover, highlight a superb cast.
Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause
Written by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Directed by Alexander Payne
Running time 1 hour 55 minutes