Alexander Payne has had a back-and-forth relationship with leading men over his last four movies, mischievously drawing the ingrained neuroses out of some, tamping down the implicit star-power of others. In The Descendants, George Clooney gets the same workaday treatment as Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt (as opposed to the fussy amplification suffered by Matthew Broderick and Paul Giamatti, in Election and Sideways, respectively) a process that attempts to shave off surface charisma to find the everyman normality beneath. It’s a bit of an ill-fit, especially since Payne’s script itself contains so much of the smirky glibness Clooney is known for. But with the help of a strong supporting cast and an endless parade of Hawaiian shirts, he eventually becomes entirely believable in this harmless but not very elegant mediation on life and death.
Payne sets up his usual modern pastoral dialectic early on, in an expository voiceover from Clooney, whose Matt King is at a crossroads, facing an important legal decision while his wife languishes in a post-boating accident coma. King, given one of the most awkwardly obvious names in recent memory, is the last direct descendant of Hawaii’s former ruling family, and through some unexplained legal loophole must unload hundreds acres of land before they’re seized by the government. The choice of what to do with it – sell to make room for resorts or keep the land native and pristine – is complicated by a large quorum of cousins, impatiently awaiting King’s decision.
It’s the intertwining of the film’s two arcs, one concerned with death, the other with the future, that makes this Payne’s most mature, rewarding film. This isn’t saying very much, and a lot of his signature tics remain, mostly in the form of rampant over-narration and cruel, broad attempts at satire. These are especially prevalent in the film’s slower-paced first half, and Payne’s usual offhand disrespect for his characters, which at times verges into spite, continues throughout. The worst example is teenage dope Sid (Nick Crause) who seemingly hangs around just to function as a punching bag, both literally and figuratively, for the film and its characters alike. The small moment of humanization given to him near the end feels both like a realization of the movie’s mean-spiritedness and also a tossed bone.
There’s nothing wrong with meanness when applied correctly, but the imbalance here, while less obvious than in many of Payne’s previous films, is the same: a combination of faux-populist humanism and crude, unfunny jokes makes the whole thing feel insulting and trite. Like Broderick’s tossed-drink coda in Election and Kathy Bates’ nude scene in About Schmidt, these gags act as cathartic attacks on the building of drama and betray the characters’ emotional progress.
These kind of problems continue to plague The Descendants throughout, but so much of the film feels fully realized, from the native Hawaiian setting to the crowd of edgy cousins (led by a cozily menacing Beau Bridges), that it works reasonably well. It’s not a great film, or a very substantial one, but as an exploration of death it at least treats it subject with a surprisingly admirable sense of maturity.