Filmmaker Alexander Payne’s penchant for quirky characters on introspective missions culminated in an Oscar win for his adapted screenplay of “Sideways” in 2004, after which he disappeared. And so, in a year of more Transformers than actors running around onscreen, Payne returns to the industry as his newest adaptation, “The Descendants,” earns a wide release after a festival run. Brought to life from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel, the story involves Matt King (George Clooney), a successful lawyer and heir to valuable Hawaiian beachfront property, whose wife recently suffered a boating accident and is in a coma. King must go tell family members of the news as a deadline to sell his treasured inheritance approaches. He picks up his daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), and the awkward family sets out, reclaiming their relationship and some shocking truths along the way.
Payne’s style of storytelling weaves a smooth narrative, making the controversial themes convincingly entertaining. Even in a tale with a dying mother who holds a dark secret, the movie remains funny — not hysterical or gross-out, but funny in an enjoyable sense. The stellar cast could claim responsibility for this, as George Clooney delivers a mature portrait, and his daughters create a family dynamic. These family members grow together throughout the movie. Idiosyncrasies like Scottie’s mania and Alexandra’s compassion don’t become forced but occur naturally and provide comedy and a moving cinematic experience. Also adding to this familial situation is Alexandra’s plus one, Sid (Nick Krause). The heartfelt performance always provides comedic relief and a few unexpected (but appreciated) lessons. The young Woodley and Miller will be names to watch for in the future as the former matures convincingly onscreen and the latter makes great use of her time showing potential as the youngest child of the King family.
The film begins with a lengthy exposition, as plotlines of the land sale and each daughter’s conflict must be set down and the characters introduced. Danger exists in the amount of material that is presented. Some of it seems excessive after the credits have rolled. However, many pieces of the puzzle turn out to be charmingly important. Payne’s ability to keep the narrative moving through this character development and exposition, even in the face of derailment through the conflicting drama and comedy, becomes laudable and necessary. “The Descendants,” much like his past “Sideways,” seems a movie in which only very few could succeed, which he does remarkably.
This is clearly a deep movie, so make no mistake when walking in: This speaks best to the mature and quirky themselves. Those patient through the slower points in the beginning will be rewarded with a satisfying and moving ending, worthy of future screenings. Many may find the theme of such comedy in the face of tragedy misplaced, yet “The Descendants” merely speaks to the indestructability of the family unit, the compassion and hope it can hold, and the incorrigibility of youth that exists in all, even a backup parent like Matt King. Clooney presents a man reborn and one who falls for the family that he’d forgotten. Make no mistake — this film will be attending the awards season.