The Descendants suffers from George Clooney syndrome. No matter how ethically compromised the character played by the Oscar-winning actor—whether it’s the corporate downsizer specialist in Up in the Air or the assassin in The American—good-guy Clooney always embodies a sense of moral redemption, the actor’s innate benevolence beaming from his rugged, wrinkled face. In the new Alexander Payne movie, the Clooney character, lawyer Matt King, is nowhere near as inherently loathsome as in some of his other recent roles; the worst that can be said of him is that he has neglected his family to focus on his career.
But the need to vindicate this occasionally prickly character necessitates an unnecessary if structurally significant plotline involving the character in a decision on whether or not to sell a large and valuable plot of ancestral Hawaiian land to developers. (Guess which choice Clooney’s character makes?) And yet, this easy bit of moral reckoning is foreign to the rest of Payne’s film, a work that often veers into questionable directions only to perpetually right itself by uncovering unsuspected layers of complexity in its characters and situations.
Essentially a coming-to-terms-with-grief family drama, The Descendants focuses on patriarch King and his two daughters, 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), both undergoing their own forms of teen and preteen rebellion in the wake of a freak motor boat accident that has left their mother a vegetable. Mining edgy, somewhat vulgar humor that sometimes verges on the sort of cruel caricaturing that made notorious such earlier Payne efforts like About Schmidt, as well as a surprising vein of earnestness in its attitude toward the struggles of family life, The Descendants follows Matt as he discovers and investigates his wife’s past infidelity, tries to connect in a more meaningful way with his girls and makes frequent visits to his soon-to-be-deceased spouse’s deathbed.
As in many a film dealing with tragedy, grief exacerbates existing tensions and Payne is shrewd in the way that he uses the mother’s limp, brain-dead body as a sounding board for everyone’s angers, grievances and regrets, an easy receptacle for feelings whose real aim is always a less passive target than the dying woman. Treading such treacherous grounds, aiming for grace and humor in equal measure, the director commits his share of missteps, such as the introduction of an obnoxious teenage stoner who often feels like little more than a target for sneering laughter. But while that character’s presence is never fully justified, even he’s granted his moment of humanity—as is the film’s most vicious presence, Matt’s reproachful father-in-law. Only a final ill-advised one-two punch that follows up the inevitable morality play with an off-note of sentimentality tips the scales away from the delicate balance that the film had managed so skillfully to maintain throughout the rest of its running time.