Matt King’s life is in meltdown. No surprises there – after all, he’s the protagonist of an Alexander Payne movie.
Think back to high school teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) in Election , so possessed with antipathy (and a sneaky hint of lust) for Reese Witherspoon’s overachieving Tracy Flick that he destroys his marriage and his career in his efforts to thwart her ambitions.
Or depressed, introverted Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) in Sideways , cultivating his snobby wine connoisseurship in a vain effort to stave off his sense of self-loathing.
So Matt (George Clooney) fits right into the pattern – even though he’s a comfortably-off lawyer living in Hawaii, a lineal descendant of King Kamehameha, the last Hawaiian royal. An enviable life, you might think.
But all Matt’s wealth, his luxurious house and lush tropical island surroundings, can’t protect him when disaster strikes. His wife Elizabeth, beautiful and intelligent, lies unconscious in hospital on life-support, having sustained a head injury while water-skiing.
And now Matt, who’s always been something of a semi-detached dad (“I’m the back-up parent, the understudy,” he reflects), finds himself called on to connect, evidently for the first time, with his two daughters, 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and 10-year-old Scotty (Amara Miller).
Already both girls are showing signs of disturbance at their mother’s condition – and sooner or later Matt has to pass on to them the doctors’ pessimistic prognosis. So he’s already reeling from the impact of events when he’s hit with a devastating emotional revelation.
Payne has always been skilled at muddying together emotions that a less sophisticated filmmaker would give us straight and undiluted; at undercutting tragedy with flashes of comedy or farce.
So after Matt’s initial stunned reaction to the bombshell (and Clooney’s subtlety here is impressive, just a minimal eye-widening and a recoil of the head conveying the shock waves of disbelief, pain and incipient fury convulsing his mind), he dashes impulsively round to nearby friends who, he believes, will be able to furnish him with more details.
His distress is genuine, but since all he’s got on his feet are plastic deck-shoes, fine for the beach but totally unsuited to speed, his passion-fuelled run becomes a ludicrously sweaty, chuntering galumph, all dignity lost.
Elsewhere much of the humour’s injected through the incongruous figure of Alex’s sort-of-boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), a dumb-ass stoner devoid of tact, whom she insists on toting along on all the most fraught family occasions. Sid, it must be said, becomes almost as irritating to us as he is to Matt, and a late reveal that this apparent goofball isn’t quite as insensitive (or as dumbass) as he seems reeks of contrivance.
Meanwhile, a subplot involving Matt’s rival, a vapid realtor called Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard, good value in his highest profile role for years) drags on a tad too long, making the second half of the film sag a little here and there. It could be that Payne’s missing the input of his usual co-screenwriter, Jim Taylor, who relocates to co-producing duties this time round.
Still, if The Descendants occasionally slips a notch below Payne’s highest standards, it’s a wry, intelligent look at the contradictions and complexities of human emotions. And the cast is exemplary, down to the smallest role.
Clooney convinces as a man tussling with all the intimate issues he’s spent half his life steering well clear of, and finding himself near breaking point. As Alexandra, Shailene Woodley shines: initially just another bratty, resentful teenager, she soon matures to the point where she’s acting as supportive parent to her own bewildered dad.
There are telling cameos from Robert Forster, bristling with anger as Matt’s father-in- law; Beau Bridges as the most affable and avaricious of the cousins; and Judy Greer as Brian’s wife, touchingly wounded on discovering his misdemeanours.
And of course, there’s Hawaii. Despite Matt’s disenchanted tirade (“My friends think that just because we live in Hawaii we live in paradise… Paradise can go fuck itself”) Payne doesn’t shy away from showing us the islands’ overwhelming beauty. Nor, being Payne, the tourist tackiness that blights them. If you were looking for the world’s naffest music, this film offers a strong candidate: Hawaiian C&W