It's hard to believe that Alexander Payne hasn't made a movie for seven years. Despite setting his last one, Sideways, somewhere other than the Midwest, his main character still suffered the relatable ennui for which his films are known. In the new one, The Descendants, Payne goes even farther from his midwestern roots, planting a lei on his movie and setting it in Hawaii. But, as Matt King (George Clooney) says in the beginning, just because he lives in paradise doesn't mean his life isn't as fucked up as anyone else's.
Matt's in crisis. A speedboat accident has put his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), in a coma, which means Matt has to parent his two daughters, 11-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and rebellious teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) through some choppy waters. Matt's not a terrible dad, but he's as disconnected from his kids as are many adults, and he hasn't parented on his own in years. Complicating things, Matt's extended family is set to meet to talk about selling off a huge parcel of untouched Hawaiian paradise for an enormous amount of money. All the cousins have different ideas about what to do, but Matt's the trustee whose signature is binding.
So, yes, Matt's got serious problems, and the way Payne's film unfolds, they all feel tragically believable. Characters in Payne's films always have problems, but usually they're suffering from not knowing their place in the world. Those characters—Paul Giamatti in Sideways or Matthew Broderick in Election—are adrift as they search for themselves, and what we've always been able to relate to is the lack of existential clarity.
In this way, The Descendants is far more straightforward than Payne's previous films. Matt isn't adrift. He's a grownup with real responsibilities. He has money, but he lives frugally. Sure, his marriage isn't perfect, and he's not very connected to his kids, but, sadly, that's life. He's just a man dealing with a number of very trying circumstances all at the same time, and what's so heartbreaking is that in every case, he has to be the responsible one. He has to be strong for his children, who push him away at every turn. He has to take the abuse hurled at him by his father-in-law (the always-terrific Robert Forster), who's lashing out because his daughter is in a coma. He has to deal with a lot of angry Hawaiians, because it's his signature that will determine what happens to an enormous parcel of virgin land. And he has to decide what to do about some disturbing things he finds out about his wife. More than anything, he has to protect innocence—the innocence of his daughters, the land, even his wife's reputation—and that comes at a cost to his own psyche.
Clooney, who looks paunchy and dad-like here, has developed into one of the most likeable actors working today, but also one who chooses the right films. He's perfect here, in a seriously tough spot, trying to do the right thing and be a good person. Matt's pain, suffering and strength, all of which Clooney conveys in a quality, low-key performance, feel universal, and, in that way, The Descendants is vintage Alexander Payne, because while it deals with serious subject matter, it's also fun and funny, populated with interesting oddballs and a talented supporting cast.
All Matt's trying to do is be a good father, a decent husband and a caretaker to nature. Matt's struggle is our own—not just the challenge of being a good person, but also feeling like one.