The Descendants is an escape to the ordinary. Alexander Payne’s first feature since Sideways is also his second since leaving Nebraska; it proves afresh that you can take the director out of Omaha, but you can’t take Omaha out of the director. At least that’s the message encoded in the opening monologue—one I was happy to receive. His patently everymannish protagonist, Matt King, addresses the audience directly—in Payne’s patently novelistic fashion—and gripes that life for natives of the Aloha State isn’t all luaus and leis. Considering that he’s the great-grandson of a Hawaiian queen, Matt’s surname seems to be heralding yet another a regality that his demeanor does not. Despite those vestigial crumbs of chocolate-lava cake, and the fact that he’s played by George Clooney, he’s pretty darn vanilla: a middle-aged attorney, father of two, soon to be a widower, and even sooner to learn that he’s a cuckold. The first shot of the movie shows his wife on water-skis—skin tanned, hair sunned, smile divine. A motorboat’s purr echoes somewhere in the distance. That’s the last time we see her out of a vegetative state.
If she had specified that she be resuscitated, the film might’ve been about a future Schmidt. Matt calls himself the “backup parent”; his 10-year-old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) bullies schoolmates for having premature pubic hairs (an unverified accusation); his suburban-Honolulu villa is a mess; and so is his 17-year-old daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley). Or at least she’s perceived to be more of a mess than most girls her age; it’s unclear whether being hauled off to boarding school was something Alex’s behavior warranted or whether it’s a sign of negligent parenting. Either way, she seems to be the wisest member of the family. Alex uses drugs to take the edge off the benign blandness that seems to emanate from her busy-body father, rather than from the idyllic archipelago. She uses drugs the way her mother was unfaithful. In About Schmidt, the melancholy of being clueless, and being too old to change that, was lyrically cogent; Schmidt played by the rules his entire life, and still couldn’t score a goal. Matt says that his father-in-law (Robert Forster), who looks like a living memorial—weathered enough to have fought in every war since the invention of gunpowder—has decked him now and then; and it’s easy to see how a rule-abiding softie like Matt could get on a hard-ass’ nerves. There’s something protean about him; he reeks of old affidavits and older coffee. Clooney gives a fine performance, but, beyond the expected range of feelings, Matt’s inscrutable—aloof to his own midlife crisis. He’s Ozzie Nelson struggling to get by in the alliterative age of Don Draper and Walter White. In the beautifully understated end, when the Kings flock around March of the Penguins on TV, it’s clear that they’ll spend more quality time together; but he looks like he’ll still push papers in his skull.
As the title implies, Payne—who adapted Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash—gives the theme of putting family first, as it were, a very macro view. The queen has other descendants, and not all of them are Kings; as a lawyer, Matt oversees the trust that contains her bequest in Kauai: seafront property that’s been pristine since the 1860s. Cousins like Beau Bridges’s beach-bum—a lifer in Margaritaville—show how little a drop of royalty can do for a bloodline; they want to do the expedient thing and sell each breathtaking acre of Granny’s dowry. Mainly, this is good as a mechanism for comedy: Matt seems to have cousins everywhere—the sort of family reunion one only expects at the reading of a will. But there’s also the unbidden gleam of Chekhov’s gun in this sitcommy set-up: You know which decision Matt’ll make from the moment the problem is introduced, and why. And since a woman with more direct Islander lineage condones of his keeping the land in the buff, and thus free from Rum Diary-esque real-estate swindles, there’s no P.C. unpleasantness about this essentially whitebread clan keeping Arcadia as their own. (I say this with all due deference to the screenwriters; their own inheritance seems to come with a few riders. A more P.C. solution, like donating the land to the Park Service, would’ve come off as phony.) Reverse Shot says that “The Descendants almost dares you to take it seriously,” and in such details as Alex’s paleolithic surfer-dude companion (Nick Krause), I was on the verge of selecting “truth” instead.